Fact check: A Bill Gates-backed pandemic simulation in October did not predict COVID-19

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The claim: Bill Gates and the World Economic Forum predicted the coronavirus pandemic 

As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts the globe, rumors abound online about the origin of the virus. On March 16, @freedom_faction posted an image on Instagram along with the claim that "COVID-19 was launched" a month after billionaire Bill Gates hosted a "high-level pandemic exercise" event. 

"#BillGates hosted a closed-door meeting for global elites and the invitation came with a #COVID19 #coronavirus plush toy, a few months later thousands would be dead," the post reads.

"The participants of Event 201, invited there by the rich and powerful elites that rule the world, sat and war-gamed how an outbreak of COVID-19 coronavirus might go," @freedom_faction also wrote in the post. "Looks like the meeting was a success because just one month to the day later, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in China, and well, you know the rest."

The image that accompanied the post was a screenshot of an article from the website Now The End Begins, which frequently publishes articles and videos which claim signs of the apocalypse in current events. 

The Instagram post cites a Johns Hopkins University pandemic preparedness simulation known as Event 201 as the scene. "Of course, it was invitation only, and held behind closed doors," the post reads. 

USA TODAY reached out to the Instagram author for comment and has received no reply yet.

Conspiracy theories about the event have circulated online for months; A Jan. 29 article posted on the website Humans Are Free claimed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and World Economic Forum had conducted a pandemic simulation “just six weeks before the real outbreak.”

The article then goes on to say “that is one hell of a coincidence if you believe in that sort of thing.” It heavily insinuates the baseless claim that the event was conducted as preparation for the current coronavirus outbreak.

Although Event 201 was a real operation, there is no evidence that it was meant to model or engineer the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Event 201 and pandemic preparation

Event 201 was a tabletop exercise that simulated a global pandemic, which resulted from a new coronavirus. The program was hosted in October by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and World Economic Forum

The invite-only event featured medical professionals, policy experts and business analysts all focused on how different institutions would respond to the onset of a deadly virus. The fictional coronavirus — a coronavirus, in general, being a specific kind of virus — in the scenario killed 65 million people over 18 months. Joint recommendations from participants urged international cooperation both in preparing for and handling a pandemic.

The Center for Health Security has hosted three pandemic simulations prior to Event 201, going back to a 2001 simulation known as Dark Winter. The October simulation was the first time the center included private sector actors in its exercises, in the hopes of modeling how they might also react in such a crisis.

Host responds to prediction claim

“To be clear, the Center for Health Security and partners did not make a prediction during our tabletop exercise,” the university program said in a statement rejecting the claim that it predicted the current pandemic. “We are not now predicting that the nCoV-2019 outbreak will kill 65 million people,” the center added.

The center further stated that the results of the scenario cannot be used to project for the COVID-19 outbreak because “the inputs we used for modeling the potential impact of that fictional virus are not similar to nCoV-2019.”

The origins and severity of the fictional pandemic differ from the current outbreak, as do the reactions of national governments and civic institutions. The disease in the scenario was "modeled largely on SARS" according to recaps of the program.

In a statement to USA TODAY, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation cited several partnerships and contributions to pandemic preparedness it had increased since the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak.

Among them, the foundation stated it has "supported efforts to bring more coordination and transparency to international collaboration on pandemic preparedness through other platforms, including the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GMBP) and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security."

Bill Gates has been vocal in the past about the threat a global pandemic poses to human civilization. In a March 2015 TED Talk, Gates argued, “If we start now, we can be ready for the next epidemic.” During a Vox interview in May that year, Gates also said, “the Ebola epidemic showed me that we are not ready for a serious epidemic.”

In a Feb. 28 article for The New England Journal of Medicine, Gates wrote, "In the past week, COVID-19 has started behaving a lot like the once-in-a-century pathogen we’ve been worried about. I hope it’s not that bad, but we should assume it will be until we know otherwise."

Our ruling: False

Although Event 201 was a real event affiliated with high-profile medical professionals, business leaders and government actors, the claim that the event predicted the current pandemic, or is tied to it directly in some way, is unfounded. We rate this claim FALSE because it is not supported by our research. There is no reason to believe that the current pandemic will resemble the Event 201 simulation, despite coincidences in the modeling and timing of the simulation.

Our fact-check sources:

Source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/03/26/fact-check-bill-gates-backed-pandemic-exercise-didnt-predict-covid-19/5081854002/

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