UK declassified 2016 epidemic simulation exercise

A secret planning exercise in 2016 in the UK simulated the impact of the MERS outbreak. According to the expert, one of the parts of these exercises could be related to the response to COVID-19.

As The Guardian learned, the British government conducted an exercise to simulate the impact of the coronavirus outbreak four years before the COVID-19 outbreak, but the authorities tried to keep it a secret.

A previously undisclosed exercise, Exercise Alice, was held in 2016 with the participation of health officials from England and the Department of Health and Human Services and suggested an outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) caused by the coronavirus.

It was one of 10 pandemic planning activities previously undisclosed and conducted in the years prior to COVID-19 and now disclosed under freedom of information legislation. Earlier, the health service of England refused to disclose the details of these exercises, citing the need to ensure national security.

A leading virologist, writes The Guardian, argues that the Exercise Alice exercise could be “fully relevant” to the response to the COVID outbreak, which in the first weeks was determined by plans to combat an influenza pandemic. In addition, a senior government respiratory advisor called it “odd” that the details of the exercise were not provided to key advisory committees.

Last October, when UK Health Minister Matt Hancock released his report on Exercise Cygnus, a 2016 influenza pandemic scenario, he told Parliament: Exercise Cygnus was not meant to address other potential pandemics or determine what action to take. to take to prevent the wide spread of the virus. “

Musa Qureshi, a hospital consultant who received the information, said British MPs should ask the health minister why he “did not tell parliament that the government has simulated several other pandemics, including the coronavirus.”

As recently as March, England’s health service declined to provide information on the exercise, but did provide data when Qureshi challenged officials in May.

Other exercises include three scenarios for Ebola, four for pandemic influenza, two for Lassa fever, acute viral haemorrhagic disease, three for avian influenza, and one for dealing with a radiation incident, dubbed Exercise Cerberus.

Calls are now being made to public health authorities to publish reports of these exercises and share them with experts.

“If there have been so many exercises, I find it odd that the results were not shared with the advisory committees,” said Professor Peter Openshaw, respiratory physician and mucosal immunologist at Imperial College London and a member of the Nervtag government committee that advises on respiratory virus threats. – I’m surprised I didn’t see the results. Openness and disclosure have historically been associated with advantages, not disadvantages. “

Professor Openshaw believes that exercise reports can be very valuable. He said that MERS, like COVID-19, was caused by the coronavirus, but the extent to which the exercise could teach lessons for the current pandemic will depend on what assumptions were made regarding mortality, route and rate of transmission, rate of diagnosis, and frequency of asymptomatic infection.

Dr. David Matthews, a virology lecturer at the University of Bristol who studies coronaviruses, said the drills on the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome would be “totally relevant” to the COVID-19 response. “If there was a MERS scenario, it would have to dust off,” he said. “But who in the health service in England knew about this, and to what extent was the government aware of it? The question is what was done about it at the beginning of the pandemic. “

A 2018 National Health Service document cites the MERS exercise, which explains that they simulated a scenario similar to the 2015 outbreak in South Korea, in which 35% of cases required intensive care and 38 died. MERS is less contagious than COVID and more deadly, according to Dr. Matthews, but the teachings would likely provide useful lessons in preparing for the COVID pandemic – these include the problems of lack of vaccine, drug treatment and doctors’ knowledge of how to treat the disease. …

Musa Qureshi said: “The MERS exercise should have prepared us for a virus with a longer incubation period than influenza, which can survive on contaminated surfaces much longer than influenza, which requires a high level of protection for healthcare workers … to the fact that the strategies for PPE and quarantine are different from the strategy for influenza. “

Read also: Researchers have assessed the danger of transmission of coronavirus through surfaces



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