But the authorities of their past did not learn the lessons for the fight against COVID-19.
A secret planning exercise in 2016 in the UK simulated the impact of an outbreak of the MERS virus. According to the expert, one of the parts of these exercises could be related to the response to COVID-19.
As The Guardian has learned, the British government conducted exercises to simulate the impact of the coronavirus outbreak four years before the COVID-19 outbreak, but the authorities tried to keep it a secret.
The previously undisclosed Exercise Alice was conducted in 2016 with officials from Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care and involved an outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus.
This was one of 10 pandemic planning activities previously undisclosed and conducted several years before COVID-19, and now disclosed under freedom of information laws. Earlier, the health service of England refused to disclose the details of these exercises, citing the need to ensure national security.
A leading virologist, claims that the Exercise Alice exercise could be “fully relevant” to the response to the COVID invasion, which in the first weeks was determined by plans to combat the flu pandemic. In addition, the government’s senior adviser on respiratory diseases called it “strange” that details of the exercise were not provided to key advisory committees.
Last October, when British Health Secretary Matt Hancock published a report on Exercise Cygnus, a scenario for the 2016 flu pandemic, he told Parliament: “Exercise Cygnus was not intended to address other potential pandemics or determine what actions could be taken to prevent the widespread of the virus.”
Musa Qureshi, a hospital consultant who received the information, said British MPs should ask the health secretary why he “did not inform parliament that the government has modeled several other pandemics, including the coronavirus.”
Most recently, in March, the health service of England refused to give information about the exercise, but still provided data when Qureshi challenged the actions of officials in May.
Other exercises include three scenarios for the Ebola virus, four for pandemic influenza, and two for Lassa fever, acute viral hemorrhagic disease, three for avian influenza, and one for radiation incident control, dubbed Exercise Cerberus.
There are now calls for health authorities to publish reports on these exercises and share them with experts.
If there were so many exercises, it seems strange to me that the results were not provided to the advisory committees,” said Professor Peter Openshaw, a respiratory physician and mucosal immunologist at Imperial College London, a member of the government’s Nervtag committee, which makes recommendations about the threats of respiratory viruses. – I’m surprised I didn’t see the results. Openness and disclosure have historically been associated with advantages, not disadvantages.”
Professor Openshaw believes that the exercise reports can be very valuable. He said MERS, like COVID-19, was caused by a coronavirus, but the extent to which the exercise could teach lessons for the current pandemic would depend on what assumptions were made about lethality, the pathway and rate of transmission, the speed of diagnosis, and the frequency of asymptomatic infection.
Dr. David Mathews, a lecturer in virology at the University of Bristol who studies coronaviruses, said the Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak exercise “would be entirely relevant” to the response to COVID-19. “If there was a MERS scenario, it would have to be dusted off,” he said. – But who in Public Health England knew about this, and how much did the government know?” The question is what was done about it at the beginning of the pandemic.”
A 2018 National Health Service document refers to the MERS exercise, which explains that they modeled a scenario similar to the 2015 outbreak in South Korea when 35% of those who became ill needed intensive care and 38 people died. According to Dr. Matthews, MERS is less contagious than COVID and more deadly, but the exercises would probably teach useful lessons for preparing for a COVID pandemic – these include problems with the lack of a vaccine, medication, and doctors ‘ knowledge of how to treat the disease. Musa Qureshi said: “The MERS exercise was to prepare us for a virus with a longer incubation period than the flu, which can survive on infected surfaces for much longer than the flu, which requires a high level of protection for health workers… This should have led to strategies for PPE and quarantine being different from those for influenza.”