Terrorists could use anti-vax conspiracies to disrupt pandemic emergency response

Terrorists could use anti-vax conspiracies to disrupt pandemic emergency response
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A number of news outlets, including CNN and STAT, have revealed how some Russian agents sought to inflame disagreement on the issue of vaccination, among others, between 2014 and 2017. `

While the true motive behind such efforts cannot currently be known, it is speculated that this weaponizing of information is intended to disrupt our electoral processes, drive deeper wedges between segments of the American public, and separate the U.S. from its allies.

While this is certainly scary enough on its own, this kind of information warfare has even more terrifying implications if you combine it with a scenario like Clade X.


Clade X was a pandemic tabletop exercise conducted by the Center for Health Security in the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.

The exercise brought together a group of academics — as well as current and former elected and administrative officials — as a simulated Executive Committee of the President (ExComm) to provide recommendations to the president after a terrorist group released a bioengineered virus that was both highly virulent and highly contagious.

The discussions covered a wide range of issues, and it was noted during one of the segments of the exercise that consideration would need to be given to how to counter misinformation on social media. Now we know that average Americans are perfectly capable of spreading inaccurate information online all on their own.

While public health officials and many health care providers consider the misinformation spread online by average citizens, much of it dangerous because of its negative effects on preventative measures like vaccination, much of it is at least not intended to be hostile or destructive. However, we now know that foreign adversaries such as Russia are actively using social media in an attempt to weaken political institutions and exacerbate domestic tensions.

It should be noted that while the results of Russian meddling have had serious repercussions for American politics, the fact that it was done during a period of relative peace and calm made the effects less devastating.

Now let’s go back to the Clade X scenario. A terrorist group has released a deadly virus never seen before on the planet in the U.S. and other countries around the globe. The stated purpose of this group, called A Brighter Dawn, is to drastically reduce the world’s population.

The discussion among experts during the scenario already revealed that the U.S. and world community would have serious deficiencies when it came to defending against such an event, including lack of capacity for rapid vaccine development and a health care system with limited surge capacity.

However, what if a vaccine was finally developed, but a sizable portion of U.S. citizens and people in other nations refused it because A brighter dawn had used social media platforms to spread lies about the source of the virus and the safety of the vaccine? We have seen such conspiracy theories spread on-line, such as in 2016 during the Zika emergency.

The group could claim that the U.S. government or the United Nations had released the virus intentionally and that the vaccine was intended to enslave the remaining population. Allegations could be made that the virus was an accidentally released bioweapon and the vaccine was untested and simply meant to pacify the population.

Following the lead of the Russians, A Brighter Dawn could claim that only wealthy, white people would receive the real vaccine and the rest of the world’s population would only receive a placebo.

Russia’s efforts to intensify political and cultural differences has already had toxic effects from which it will take many years to recover.

However, as is often noted, the U.S. has yet to confront a national crisis on the order of 9/11, the Great Recession, or a potential pandemic such as H1N1 influenza during the Trump presidency. The results of the crisis management that the administration has engaged in (such as the response to the devastation in Puerto Rico) has not been encouraging, to say the least.

What if tomorrow we did wake up to reports that cases of a new virus were being seen in Germany and Venezuela? Not long after, cases began to be seen on the East Coast of the United States. Soon it is clear that the virus would spread across the continental United States and much of the world and the fatality rate would be astronomical.

For humanity to conquer such a challenge, the international community would need to come together in a manner perhaps unprecedented in our history.

During such as time, who would people turn to for information to protect their family? How long before the conspiracy theories emerged? How many would believe them? And how many would suffer as a result?

Nathan Myers is an associate professor of political science and public administration at Indiana State University. He regularly writes on issues of public health emergency preparedness, biodefense, biotechnology policy, and bureaucratic politics.