At “germ games” held in Washington, D.C., pandemic planners get a look at the threat posed by synthetic biology.
From the MIT Technology Review:
In June 2001, a group of government officials and journalists play-acted their way through a “germ game,” a fictional scenario in which the (then obscure) terrorist group called Al Qaeda sets off an outbreak of smallpox in US shopping malls.
The exercise, called Dark Winter, proved influential in shaping US “pandemic preparedness” policy, promoting the notion that this country, and others, should stockpile vaccines, provide extra hospital beds, and make emergency plans in the event of a global disease outbreak that might never materialize. Dark Winter, since reenacted in schools and statehouses, was effective in part because it proved prescient. Within three months of the exercise the U.S. was hit by the 9/11 attacks and anthrax-laden letters were circulating in the US postal system (though these were allegedly sent by an American military scientist, not foreign terrorists).
Politicians got the message. Today, the US stockpiles enough smallpox vaccine for every man, woman, and child, and large supplies of anthrax drugs, too.
Much has changed since 2001, though, so on Tuesday, May 15, some of the original participants in Dark Winter returned for a new pandemic exercise, CladeX, held at a fancy hotel in Washington, DC. At 9 a.m., foreboding music filled a ballroom, and the lights dimmed around a U-shaped table where a fictional cabinet had taken seats. The players included former Senate leader Tom Daschle (reprising that role), onetime Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief Julie Gerberding, and Tara O’Toole, the creator of the Dark Winter scenario.
The group’s task: respond to a fictional outbreak. A virus is killing dozens in Frankfurt, Germany, and spreading in Venezuela, though that country’s president denies the problem. It’s moving fast and has a high mortality rate. The leaders immediately must decide whether to shut airports (they don’t) and give assistance to Venezuela (they do), and how to calm the public as fake news spreads paranoia on social media.