Johns Hopkins became synonymous with their dashboard that tracked the global spread of the coronavirus. But few remember their pandemic simulation exercise just two months before the outbreak


On October 18th 2019, a simulation exercise involving 15 policymakers, health officials, and business leaders took place at The Pierre Hotel in New York City. Known as Event 201, the exercise was co-hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the World Economic Forum.

The scenario put forward at Event 201 was a quick-spreading novel coronavirus that had begun on a pig farm in South America. There was no cure and it would be at least a year before a vaccine could surface. Global transmission was frighteningly quick and many people were infected. There was economic collapse, social media disinformation, and when the infection finally died down 18 months later, more than 65 million people had perished.

According to Dr. Redonda Miller, President of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the intended outtake of this simulation exercise was several recommendations that would help prepare the world for the next pandemic. Ironically, at that time, no one could have believed the simulation exercise would develop into reality just two months later. They also wouldn’t have predicted that the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center would be where most people turned to for important data on how COVID-19 silently stalked the world.

Many regarded the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Hospital as the birthplace of modern American medicine because numerous famous medical traditions such as rounds, residents and house staff all started here. Now, it was to become synonymous with another vital development, the COVID-19 dashboard.

Back in January 2020, Johns Hopkins engineer and disease modeling expert Lauren Gardner, suggested creating a map to track the global reach of infection when her first-year PhD student Ensheng Dong overhead the news of a new coronavirus spreading in his hometown in China’s Shanxi province. Knowing that authorities were often slow and passive about publicizing the number of confirmed cases, Gardner’s initial intention was to collect real-time data for her fellow academic peers to conduct follow-up analyses and research studies.

As the epidemic evolved into a pandemic, the map metamorphosed into a dashboard and subsequently, a resource center. Gardner, Dong and their team were not only overwhelmed by the number of times they had to update the COVID-19 figures every day but they also realized their data had a major shortcoming – there was no official criteria on how to tally the COVID-19 infection and deaths. Different countries have different ways to record and report COVID-19 cases which all contributed to a significant amount of inconsistency.

As such, the Johns Hopkins team was unsure if the numbers truly captured the extent of the pandemic and if they painted an urgent picture for governments to react accordingly. Besides, COVID-19 has a long pre-symptomatic phase and the present qPCR (quantitative polymerase chain reaction) test used for diagnosis only picks up 80% of positivity. As a result, the team was afraid some of the hardest-hit communities might go unseen. Despite that, the resource center continued to gather more data.

So much so, that months later it is now detailing vaccination progress and providing answers to commonly asked questions from scientists, including why some COVID-19 patients get so sick while others do not. While it’s now widely understood that pre-existing medical conditions, age, and genetic predispositions all play a part in making some people more vulnerable than others, the CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, Dr. Paul B. Rothman, hopes that the resource center can be at the forefront of AI-driven solutions to actually predict who might get very sick and who might benefit from different therapeutic interventions.

To that end, the hospital is already currently analyzing datasets to help provide more personalized care for COVID-19 patients, seizing every opportunity to facilitate diagnosis, treatment and inoculation strategies. But the harsh reality is that despite Johns Hopkins best efforts, the takeaway lesson from the fictional pandemic their experts designed back in October 2019, remains the same:

We were nowhere near prepared.