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War-Gamed Pandemic Disaster Unfolds In Real Time

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some parts of the United States government had a 14-year head start in preparing for the pandemic. In the early 2000s, several Pentagon simulations envisioned the effects of a deadly flu strain. Think of these exercises like war games. Now people who conducted those exercises are watching them unfold in real life. NPR's Hannah Allam reports.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: In early March, as the coronavirus was spreading across the country, Margaret McCown was in her office at the Pentagon. She was drawing up plans to move her staff to teleworking when suddenly she remembered a report she'd written years ago. It was called Wargaming the Flu.

MARGARET MCCOWN: As I looked through it, I was realizing the extent to which it had really identified some of the things that we were living and some of the debates that I was seeing on TV. And that was - that uncomfortable moment when you find yourself a little bit living in your own war game.

ALLAM: Starting in 2006, back when she was at National Defense University, McCown launched a series of war games centered on one threat - a global pandemic. The players were top officials from the government - the Pentagon and Congress. And in the beginning, she says, the games were mostly about logistics.

MCCOWN: We had initially seen them as almost as sort of an emergency response problem. It's getting the right stuff to the right place.

ALLAM: In early games, participants raised concerns that the health care system would be overwhelmed. Would there be enough ventilators, hospital beds? But McCown says they also had questions about daily life, like...

MCCOWN: People's ability to take time off work or having sick leave would impact their ability to abide by social distancing. And the decisions like when you close schools and so forth would come to be important.

ALLAM: War games don't tell leaders how to respond in a crisis, but they do help them figure out the pros and cons of different options. Think of the board game Risk - except the players are real officials in charge of national security. After the 9/11 attacks, war games about outbreak started popping up. At first, they involved intentional acts of bioterrorism, but that changed as another threat emerged.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The Centers for Disease Control says H1N1 has spread to 46 states.

ALLAM: H1N1, avian flu, Ebola - there was a growing concern about deadly viruses that jump from animals to humans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: More than 1,000 Americans have died, and more than 20,000 have been hospitalized.

ALLAM: Pandemic war games had ominous names - Global Tempest, Dark Winter, Atlantic Storm. And they didn't end well. Some teams faced catastrophic death tolls and riots in the streets. But as the years went on, McCown says, the focus shifted.

MCCOWN: Pandemic may not have waned in important, but other national security issues sort of crowded attention more.

ALLAM: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaida, ISIS - those threats were visible, tangible. The coronavirus, as President Trump calls it, is the, quote, "invisible enemy." But that doesn't mean nobody saw it coming.

PAT ROBERTS: I'll tell you what I felt when we knew the severity of this. And I said, well, here we go again.

ALLAM: That's Senator Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas. He's been in Congress 40 years. Roberts participated in some of the earliest pandemic war-gaming, including those McCown ran. Through the Senate Agriculture Committee, he's also worked on U.S. responses to real outbreaks.

ROBERTS: We worked on African swine fever, sH1N1 and then also the avian flu. And now we're working very hard on COVID-19. So yeah, this is not my first rodeo.

ALLAM: In the years after the 9/11 attacks, Robert says, there were signs that the government was starting to take the pandemic threat seriously. In 2005, then-President George W. Bush raised the issue at the National Institutes of Health.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: But if we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare.

ALLAM: Roberts was chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee in those years. He says the pandemic threat just didn't stick as a national security priority. That's despite years of war-gaming and near misses from smaller outbreaks that all suggested the big one was yet to come.

ROBERTS: From time to time, there were all these warnings that we were trying to get the attention of all the intelligence agencies - move this to the top of the line.

ALLAM: And what was the response you were given then?

ROBERTS: I really can't get into details, but the CIA specifically told us. But you could never get it in the top 10.

ALLAM: Roberts isn't interested in I told-you-so's. He says his focus is the urgent response needed now to protect the food supply chain. The new hurdle, he says, is what he calls a pandemic of politics - partisanship making it harder to respond to a public health emergency.

ROBERTS: We will get through it, but we could sure do it one hell of a lot better.

ALLAM: As for the Pentagon's Margaret McCown, she says there are lessons and limits to war games. No simulation can prevent a deadly virus from racing across the globe, but McCown says the current pandemic shows the importance of gaming out threats before they become real. It's something she thinks about on a daily basis right now.

MCCOWN: When I'm Cloroxing my car keys and wiping down my doorknob and picking up delivering groceries and so forth, I'm thinking through - big picture, why am I doing this? - and you know, not just the nuisance factor.

ALLAM: After all, McCown's job as a war game designer is to get leaders thinking strategically. When it comes to action, that part's up to them.

Hannah Allam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.