On June 22, 2001, a group of well-known U.S. officials and a handful of senior policymakers gathered at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland for a senior-level exercise that simulated a biological weapons attack—an outbreak of deadly smallpox—on the United States. Designed by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies (now called the Center for Health Security) and the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the day-and-a-half-long “Dark Winter” simulation was conducted to gauge how senior leaders would respond to such an attack and included such high-level participants as Sen. Sam Nunn (who played the president), former White House advisor David Gergen (the national security advisor), and the retired career diplomat Frank Wisner (the secretary of state). But Dark Winter has since become legendary in senior policymaking circles in Washington for a different reason: It has regularly been cited by its designers and participants as the clearest exhibit of the spiraling stresses, and potential social collapse, that could be sparked by a public health crisis.
Dark Winter (which stipulates a smallpox attack by an unknown assailant) is not COVID-19 (a disease inadvertently spread by human contact), of course. But the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic bears an eerie resemblance to the simulation: leaders hampered by an inability to address a crisis they hadn’t foreseen (“We’d have been much more comfortable with a terrorist bombing,” Nunn later said in congressional testimony); national decision-making driven by data and expertise from the medical and public health sectors; management options limited by the swift and unpredictable spread of the disease (and a limited stockpile of vaccines); a health care system that lacks the surge capacity to deal with mass casualties; increased tensions between state and federal authorities; the rapid spread of misinformation on cures and treatments for the outbreak (the only way to treat smallpox is to not get it); the difficulty of controlling unpredicted flights of civilians from infected areas; domestic turmoil sparked by political uncertainty (with sporadic rioting—quelled by National Guard units—in large urban areas as grocery stores are shuttered); and an increasing reliance on the willingness (and unwillingness) of individual citizens to self-quarantine to stop the spread of the contagion.