The committee to advise the President first met approximately one month after the virus first appeared.
There had been more than 400 cases and 50 deaths so far, mostly split between Frankfurt, Germany, and Caracas, Venezuela.
Patients presented with fever, cough, and confusion. In a disturbing number of cases, encephalitis – swelling in the brain – caused patients to fall into a potentially fatal coma.
Researchers had been able to isolate what appeared to be a new pathogen, a disease-causing agent.
The virus seemed to be a new type of parainfluenza virus from a family of respiratory viruses that normally cause mild illnesses like the cold. Scientists studying the disease couldn’t identify where the virus fit in the parainfluenza family, so they referred to the pathogen as parainfluenza Clade X.
Health authorities said Clade X, which appeared to spread by coughing and to take up to a week before patients started showing severe symptoms, had pandemic potential.
This situation described here is fictional.
It’s part of a scenario created by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, designed to see how real policy experts and government decisionmakers would respond to a similar situation.
The scenario was designed to be completely realistic, with a disease that could plausibly exist and a world that has the exact same resources to respond as we do now.
On May 15th, when the “Clade X” simulation was played out real-time, the people acting out the scenario were the sorts of individuals who’d be responding to this situation in real life. The players included former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Indiana Representative Susan Brooks (R), former CDC Director Julie Gerberding, and others with extensive experience.
Yet by the day’s end, representing 20 months after the start of the outbreak, there were 150 million dead around the globe, and 15 to 20 million deaths in the US alone. With no vaccine for the illness yet ready, that death toll would have been expected to climb.
“I think we learned that even very knowledgeable, experienced, devoted senior public officials who have lived through many crises still have trouble dealing with something like this,” Dr. Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health Security and the designer of the Clade X simulation, told Business Insider. “And it’s not because they are not good or smart or dedicated, it’s because we don’t have the systems we need to enable the kind of response we’d want to see.”
If efforts to develop a vaccine continued to fail, Toner said a disease like this could kill 900 million people, or more than 10% of the world’s population.
A virus capable of wiping out more than 10% of the world might sound like it would need to be one of the most fatal, contagious diseases ever – as easy to catch as measles, which spreads to 90% of the non-vaccinated people near an infected person, but as fatal as Ebola.