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By Patrick Orsagos April 16, 2020

No, Amazon’s Alexa doesn’t say 'the government' planned the coronavirus pandemic

If Your Time is short

• The Alexa answer in the post refers to a real project called Event 201 that simulated possible outcomes of a coronavirus pandemic. However, it was a planning exercise and did not predict the COVID-19 pandemic. 

• We were unable to elicit the same answer from Alexa, and Amazon told us that the answer to that question would be different.

 

A Facebook video that racked up thousands of shares claims the coronavirus now spreading across the world was planned and released by the United States government — and it says that this claim is backed up by "Alexa," the voice of the Amazon Echo. 

Echo is a voice-activated home speaker that can provide the user with answers to questions and other content by searching the internet for information. Echo users connect with the device by conversing with "Alexa," the system’s "virtual assistant."

The March 31 video is a recording of a TikTok video playing on another smartphone. The man recording the Facebook video warns viewers of his fears that the TikTok video will be deleted from the platform. In the TikTok, a man asks his Amazon Echo, "Alexa, did the government release the coronavirus?" 

In the video, Alexa’s computer-generated voice responds: "According to Event 201, the government planned this event, created the virus and had a simulation of how the countries would react. This simulation occurred October 18, 2019. The government released the virus among the population and has lost control of the outbreak." 

The spread of misinformation about the coronavirus on TikTok and through Amazon Alexa have recently been reported by outlets such as WUSA9’s VERIFY team and Vox. Let’s take a closer look.

What is Event 201?

There was an Event 201, involving a simulated viral pandemic. And it did take place on Oct. 18, 2019, at a hotel in New York. But no actual virus was created or released.

During the event, officials from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, the World Economic Forum, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and 15 global business, government and public health leaders held a 3.5 hour simulation to view the potential effects of an infectious pandemic.

The exercise consisted of pre-recorded news broadcasts, live "staff" briefings, and moderated discussions on specific topics, the organizers said. 

The purpose of the simulation was to examine how industries, governments and public health leaders might have to join forces to combat a global health crisis. It was inspired by research published by the World Economic Forum, an international foundation that studies the intersection of business, politics and academics and their impacts on policy.

The pandemic in the fictionalized scenario was caused by a coronavirus, of which there are many types

The study found that a pandemic could cause an average annual economic loss of 0.7% of global gross domestic product, or about $570 billion. The businesses and political leaders involved in the simulation were tasked with working together to create viable solutions to the theoretical pandemic. 

The participants’ conclusion was that "the next severe pandemic will not only cause great illness and loss of life but could also trigger major cascading economic and societal consequences that could contribute greatly to global impact and suffering."

Now that the world is grappling with an actual coronavirus pandemic, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has released a statement reaffirming that the simulation did not predict the current outbreak, but rather was an exercise to examine what would need to happen if one did occur. 

"For the scenario, we modeled a fictional coronavirus pandemic, but we explicitly stated that it was not a prediction," the center said. "Instead, the exercise served to highlight preparedness and response challenges that would likely arise in a very severe pandemic."

Alexa’s Response 

Why did the question posed to Alexa bring up Event 201? 

That only happens in the TikTok video. We asked Alexa directly, and it brought up a different response.

Alexa said, "According to the World Health Organization, the exact cause of the current outbreak of COVID-19 is still under investigation. On December 31, 2019, it was reported to the WHO country office in China that a new coronavirus strain later, named COVID-19, was identified by Chinese researchers in connection with a pneumonia-like illness based in Wuhan city, China." 

A spokesperson at Amazon told PolitiFact that the one appearing in the video "is not Alexa's response to customers, and we have not been able to replicate this example." 

The company said that any news Alexa is providing to customers about COVID-19 is from official government sources.

The company suggested a couple of explanations why Alexa might have responded the way it did in the video. 

One possibility is that a customer set a specific response for Alexa. Responses can be recorded and scheduled, like a daily reminder service. This response would play only on that customer’s device, not the system at large. 

Another possibility involves Alexa Skill Blueprints, which offer templates for trivia games, birthday cards, and flashcards. With this feature, users can create their own automated questions and responses. 

Our Ruling 

Facebook posts say that if you ask Amazon’s Alexa about the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, it says "the government planned" it and refers to something called "Event 201."

There was a project called Event 201 that simulated possible outcomes of a coronavirus pandemic, but it was a planning exercise and did not predict this specific COVID-19 pandemic. 

More importantly, we were unable to elicit the same answer from Alexa, and Amazon told us that the answer to that question would be different.

We rate the statement False. 

Our Sources

Facebook, video, March 31, 2020  

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Event 201 A Global Pandemic Exercise, Accessed April 15, 2020 

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Statement about nCoV and our pandemic exercise, accessed April 15, 2020 

WUSA9, VERIFY: No, Alexa doesn’t blame the government for creating COVID-19, April 8, 2020 

Vox, Here’s what Alexa and other smart speakers say about the coronavirus, March 13, 2020 

Center for Disease Control, Human Coronavirus Types, Accessed April 15, 2020 

Kerry Hall Amazon Spokesperson, email and phone interview, April 14, 2020 

Amazon, Alexa Skill Blueprint, accessed April 15, 2020 

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