Preventing Global Catastrophic Biological Risks
A Tabletop Exercise at the 2020 Munich Security Conference
- Munich Security Conference
In February 2020, during the Munich Security Conference, NTI convened senior leaders from around the world for a scenario-based tabletop exercise designed to identify gaps in global capabilities to prevent and respond to a high-consequence biological event.
The exercise was focused on two key goals: highlighting emerging biological risks associated with rapid technology advances and discussing governance measures to reduce these risks; and examining current and proposed new mechanisms for preventing, deterring, and responding to the development of biological weapons by sophisticated actors, such as states.
The exercise was developed in 2019 and was not intended to address the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic or the response by the international community. However, organizers and participants found that the exercise exposed important gaps and revealed priorities for future international collaboration, which are both relevant to the ongoing pandemic and important to reducing the significant health, economic, and security risks posed by potential future catastrophic biological events of any origin.
Set in late summer 2020, the fictional scenario opened with the world confronting an unexplained influenza virus that is killing international travelers from Aplea, a fictional middle-income country with a burgeoning bioscience and biotechnology economy. As the exercise unfolds, research teams from two World Health Organization collaborating centers sequence the responsible strain and identify it as an engineered version of H2N2 influenza virus, which is related to a strain that circulated among humans several decades earlier. Despite an emerging international consensus that this is a laboratory-created virus, the intent and identity of its creators remain unknown.
Watch the videos from the first phase of the scenario below.
NTI | bio Tabletop Exercise on High Consequence Biological Threats, February 2020 - Segment 1
NTI | bio Tabletop Exercise on High Consequence Biological Threats, February 2020 - Segment 2
As the scenario progresses, researchers identify a state-run laboratory in Aplea as the likely source of the outbreak. However, government officials in Aplea assert that the laboratory is part of an ongoing bio-preparedness program. The scenario concludes with additional intelligence sources—including former scientists from the laboratory in question—providing irrefutable evidence that the state-run laboratory in Aplea is indeed a bioweapons facility and that the spread of the deadly virus resulted from an accidental release. By the end of the exercise, the global case count is more than 2 billion, and more than 50 million lives have been lost as a result of the virus’ spread.
Watch the final two phases of the scenario below.
NTI | bio Tabletop Exercise on High Consequence Biological Threats, February 2020 - Segment 3
NTI | bio Tabletop Exercise on High Consequence Biological Threats, February 2020 - Segment 4
Outcomes & Report
The exercise uncovered important information about capability gaps within the international system to manage challenging situations like those presented in the fictional scenario. To address these gaps, the exercise organizers developed several key recommendations that was published in a September 2020 report, Preventing Global Catastrophic Biological Risks: Lessons and Recommendations from a Tabletop Exercise Held at the 2020 Munich Security Conference.