A conspiracy theory website distorted the facts about an emergency preparedness exercise to suggest that the “GATES FOUNDATION & OTHERS PREDICTED UP TO 65 MILLION DEATHS” from the coronavirus now spreading. The event dealt with a hypothetical scenario involving a fictional virus.
We’ve previously explained that the outbreak of a respiratory disease that began in Wuhan, China, is from a new coronavirus, and that the term “coronavirus” refers to a group of viruses, not one unique strain. The virus now spreading is being referred to as the 2019 novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV.
But online headlines shared on social media have capitalized on the generic term “coronavirus” to falsely suggest that organizations in the public health space made predictions about the new virus even before the outbreak began in December.
Amid the news about the new virus, the conspiracy theory website InfoWars ran a Jan. 24 headline, since picked up elsewhere, that claimed: “BILL AND MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION & OTHERS PREDICTED UP TO 65 MILLION DEATHS VIA CORONAVIRUS — IN SIMULATION RAN 3 MONTHS AGO!”
“Foundation also funded group who owns virus patent and is funding research for a vaccine to stop it from spreading,” a misleading subhead reads.
There was in fact an exercise (called “Event 201”) that took place in October that was hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security — which the Gates Foundation participated in — that focused on emergency preparedness in the event of a “very severe pandemic.” But it didn’t deal with 2019-nCoV, and it didn’t make real-life predictions about death tolls.
“To be clear, the Center for Health Security and partners did not make a prediction during our tabletop exercise. For the scenario, we modeled a fictional coronavirus pandemic, but we explicitly stated that it was not a prediction,” the center said in a statement. “Instead, the exercise served to highlight preparedness and response challenges that would likely arise in a very severe pandemic. We are not now predicting that the nCoV-2019 outbreak will kill 65 million people. Although our tabletop exercise included a mock novel coronavirus, the inputs we used for modeling the potential impact of that fictional virus are not similar to nCoV-2019.”
In other words, the event centered on a made-up coronavirus — and not one with the same features of the virus currently spreading. The fictionalized scenario involved a disease starting in pig farms in Brazil and spreading around the world, leading to 65 million deaths. Again, that was all made up for the simulation. Videos of, and information on, the event are easily accessible online; the Center for Health Security has hosted similar events in the past, too.
It’s not surprising that such a simulation would have focused on a type of coronavirus, said David Hamer, professor of global health and medicine at Boston University and faculty member of the university’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories.
Hamer said the goal of such a simulation — which often brings together representatives from across disciplines such as academia, public health and government — “is to present an unknown scenario and have the groups work in teams to develop an emergency response.”
“They can be pretty intense. The designers try to make them very realistic,” he told FactCheck.org. “Respiratory viruses like coronavirus, like SARS, like MERS are good examples to use in a format like this because of the facility in which they can spread.”
But, he said, it’s important to distinguish a disease like 2019-nCoV as just one virus in a larger classification: “This is a relatively common family of viruses, but there is quite a range of pathogenicity in the family.”
The claim that the Gates Foundation “funded group who owns virus patent and is funding research for a vaccine to stop it from spreading” is similarly misleading.
The patent the InfoWars story links to — No. 10,130,701 — is for a mutated form of avian infectious bronchitis virus (IBV), a different coronavirus that infects poultry, but not people, as we’ve explained before. That patent was filed by the Pirbright Institute — a research institute in the U.K. that works to prevent viral diseases of livestock — and the mutations were created to weaken the virus so that it could be used as a vaccine to protect chickens from IBV.
Matthew Frieman, a coronavirus researcher at the University of Maryland, told us previously that that patent has nothing “to do with the new 2019-nCoV virus.”
Pirbright, addressing misinformation about its patent, said that the organization “does not currently work with human coronaviruses” and that its “research is focused on animal coronaviruses, primarily chickens.”
“The Institute holds Patent no. 10130701 which covers the development of an attenuated (weakened) form of the coronavirus that could potentially be used as a vaccine to prevent respiratory diseases in birds and other animals,” it said in a statement. “Many vaccines are made in this way, from flu to polio. We have not yet developed an IBV vaccine, but research is ongoing.”
Pirbright has received continued funding from the Gates Foundation, including for its Livestock Antibody Hub, but said its “patented work was not funded” by the foundation.
The Gates Foundation routinely gives money to combat diseases, including for vaccine development and delivery. It recently announced it would commit $10 million in funds and technical support to help the responders in China and Africa contain the spread of the new coronavirus.
Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.
“Awarded Grants | Pirbright Institute.” Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Accessed 28 Jan 2020.
“Event 201 Videos.” Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Accessed 28 Jan 2020.
Hamer, David. Professor of global health and medicine, Boston University. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 28 Jan 2020.
McDonald, Jessica. “Social Media Posts Spread Bogus Coronavirus Conspiracy Theory.” FactCheck.org. 24 Jan 2020.
“Pirbright’s livestock coronavirus research – your questions answered.” Press release. Pirbright Institute. 24 Jan 2020.
“Statement about nCoV and our pandemic exercise.” Press release. Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. 28 Jan 2020.