Center for Biosecurity, logo University of Pittsburgh Medical Center
Atlantic Storm, logo and stormy water background
horizontal rule
stormy water background
blank space
horizontal rule
horizontal rule
horizontal rule
horizontal rule
horizontal rule
horizontal rule
horizontal rule
vertical rule

About the Project

Exercise Overview

Decision-making during a bioterrorism crisis of the magnitude described during the Atlantic Storm exercise is not an easy task. The major public health, economic, and political stumbling blocks that proved challenging for players in the exercise would undoubtedly have an impact on the efforts of leaders attempting to coordinate an effective international response in an actual bioterrorism event. Atlantic Storm was designed to highlight the major international issues that would likely come into play and to provoke further thought, dialogue, and ultimately action to improve the transatlantic community's ability to prepare for and respond to biological terrorism. A brief description of the exercise follows.

Atlantic Storm was a ministerial table-top exercise convened on January 14, 2005 by the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the Center for Transatlantic Relations of the Johns Hopkins University, and the Transatlantic Biosecurity Network. The exercise used a fictitious scenario designed to mimic a summit of transatlantic leaders forced to respond to a bioterrorist attack. These transatlantic leaders were played by current and former officials from each country or organization represented at the table. There was an audience of observers from governments on both sides of the Atlantic as well as from the private sector, but the venue was designed to focus all attention on the summit principals and their discussions around the table.

The exercise was held in real-time using the world's current geopolitical context as a backdrop. Throughout the exercise, the summit principals received information in the format of: briefings by the "Summit Staff," periodic news videos from the "Global News Network," and personalized bulletins from their "national advisors." The exercise was designed to trigger intense discussions amongst the principals on a series of issues central to the international response to bioterrorism. While the epidemic caused by a bioterrorist attack would ultimately be a global crisis, the exercise focused on the transatlantic community since this region has a high potential for a successful, collaborative bioterrorism response. It contains both closely aligned nations (NATO and the EU), and a high concentration of resources essential for an effective response.

In the scenario, the transatlantic leaders had assembled for a long-planned "Transatlantic Security Summit" in Washington, DC. In attendance were the Presidents of the European Commission, France, and the United States, the Chancellor of Germany, the Prime Ministers of Canada, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, and the Director-General of the World Health Organization. On January 13, the eve of the summit, smallpox cases were reported in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Turkey. The leaders decide to meet for a few hours on the 14th before heading home to deal with the emerging crisis.

During the six hour meeting, the transatlantic leaders wrestled with the enormity and rapid pace of the emerging epidemics of smallpox, the tension between domestic politics and international relations, the challenge of controlling the movement of people across borders, and an international shortage of critical medical resources such as smallpox vaccine.

The total number of reported smallpox cases rose throughout the day from 51 cases in four European countries at 9:00 am to 3,320 cases throughout Europe and North America just 4.5 hours later at 1:30 pm - with projections indicating the possibility of 660,000 cases worldwide within 30 days. Ultimately, the outbreaks were discovered to be the result of covert attacks on transportation hubs and centers of commerce in six cities: Istanbul, Rotterdam, Warsaw, Frankfurt, New York, and Los Angeles.

Throughout the day, the Summit Principals focused on a series of key issues:

  • How should nations in the transatlantic community work together to respond to this new type of security threat?
    • Is this a public health or an international security crisis, or both?
  • What is the role of multilateral organizations such as NATO, the EU, and the UN?
    • Should NATO's mutual defense clause ("Article 5") be invoked?
  • How will domestic political pressures affect the ability of leaders to work together internationally?
  • How should limited medical resources be shared among nations, when, for instance, some countries have enough vaccine to cover an entire population, but many more do not? Is sharing even possible?
    • Should the World Health Organization serve as the "honest broker" to distribute pooled stocks of vaccine and other medical resources?
  • Should leaders restrict the movement of people within their nations and across national borders? What would be the economic consequences?
  • What messages should be conveyed to the public and the media?

After deciding upon their message to the public, the Summit Principals convened a press conference with journalists from Europe and North America (played by current and former members of the international press). At the conclusion of the press conference, the exercise ended and the summit principals stepped out of their roles. To reflect on the day's events, the participants joined in a moderated discussion, led by Nik Gowing of the BBC, in which they discussed lessons learned, and what steps could be taken to resolve the dilemmas they faced throughout the day.

The organizers would like to thank the distinguished participants of Atlantic Storm who had the courage to immerse themselves in this unfamiliar and challenging scenario. We did not expect the participants to find the "right" answers. The hope was that the collective experience and wisdom of the group would illuminate the difficulties of a transatlantic response to bioterrorism and suggest possible paths forward, and in this, the Atlantic Storm players were successful.


Center for Transatlantic Relations