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Monday, May 20th, 2024

Clade X: Simulated pandemic to put political leaders, public on notice

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The upcoming Clade X exercise hosted by the Center for Health Security, which is part of the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, will show the world how United States presidential advisors would handle policy decisions for an unfolding mock pandemic crisis.

“The purpose of Clade X is to raise awareness, both among the political leaders and subject matter experts in emerging infectious diseases and healthcare preparedness, but also among the general public and people who might be interested in this topic,” said Dr. Eric Toner, Clade X project team lead and a senior associate at the Center for Health Security, during a May 1 podcast interview.

During the Clade X tabletop exercise, the simulated drama will take place on May 15, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, D.C., where the “players” — former high-ranking U.S. government officials and a current United States congresswoman — act as a team of advisors who must engage in several National Security Council (NSC) meetings to resolve real-world policy issues when they learn a pandemic has struck.

The cause for the fake pandemic isn’t known at this time. It could be due to a naturally occurring disease outbreak or it might be a terrorist situation in which a bioweapon is being used. The players will learn all the information about what has happened during a series of NSC-convened meetings. Does the Clade X name provide a clue?

“Great question!” Nick Alexopulos, director of communications at the Center for Health Security, told Homeland Preparedness News in an email. “A clade is a group of related organisms that have derived from a common ancestor. The significance will be apparent as details are revealed in the exercise.”

The Clade X players will be tasked with making high-level strategic decisions and policies that both the United States and the international community would “need to pursue in order to prevent a pandemic or diminish its consequences should prevention fail,” according to the center.

The cast of characters includes John Bellinger, former legal adviser to the U.S. State Department, who will play the head role of U.S. Secretary of State during Clade X. One player, U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN), will role play her current position as a federal lawmaker.

Several other participants will role play their previously held leadership positions: former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Tara O’Toole, and former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Julie Gerberding.

Other players include former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, who will play the U.S. Attorney General; former U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, who will be the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary; former CIA General Counsel Jeff Smith, who will act as director of the CIA; and former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent (R-MO), who will be U.S. Secretary of Defense.

The White House national security advisor will be played by Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security, which is hosting Clade X as part of its ongoing work to protect people from epidemics and disasters and to strengthen communities against major challenges.

Supported by government and foundations, the center conducts independent research and analysis to examine how scientific and technological innovations can improve health security. Scholars dissect the policies, organizations, systems, and tools that prevent and respond to outbreaks and public health crises.

According to the center, its experts work to advance policies and practices that address a range of challenges, including the global rise in emerging infectious diseases, a continued risk of pandemic flu, major natural disasters, a dependence on vulnerable infrastructure, outbreaks of foodborne illness, and the potential for biological, chemical, or nuclear accidents or intentional threats.

The center has held two previous exercises like Clade X. Dark Winter, held in 2001, focused on the potential terrorist use of smallpox as a biological weapon, Toner said, while the 2005 Atlantic Storm exercise again highlighted smallpox, but this time focused on its intentional global use as a bioweapon.

Toner explained during his podcast interview that the June 22-23, 2001 Dark Winter exercise — in which the players had to respond to an evolving mock epidemic—“greatly influenced national policy, in part because it was followed shortly thereafter by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and anthrax letters.” The U.S. president was portrayed by former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA), who was chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Atlantic Storm scenario was a group of NATO countries that came together for a summit and had to tackle transatlantic joint responses to multiple releases of smallpox, deciding how and if they would share resources and vaccines, for instance. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright played the U.S. president and the event was viewed on both the BBC and Nightline, Toner said, making it a very high-profile event.

While Atlantic Storm didn’t directly affect U.S. policy, Toner said, it raised awareness around bioterrorism.

So in the Clade X exercise, he said, the center is trying to replicate Atlantic Storm’s production values, “which turned out to be compelling television,” said Toner, who is also a senior scientist in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, as well as an internist and emergency physician.

However, the Clade X exercise will focus on bioterrorism and the threat of a pandemic, while touching on issues that also came up in the previous exercises that remain unresolved, he added, noting that the players and the center will try to propose ways, through the exercise, on how to solve challenging issues.

“If we’re successful with this exercise, we will hopefully widen people’s eyes … to the kinds of threats that biology and biotechnology and emerging infectious diseases pose to human beings,” Toner said. “We will also make recommendations for where policy could help make a difference.”

Seating for Clade X was invitation only; but don’t despair. Clade X is being livestreamed May 15 on the Center for Health Security’s Facebook page and from the Clade X website.