By Emily Venezky February 3, 2020

These plushies do not ‘commemorate’ the 2019 Novel coronavirus strain

If Your Time is short

  • The toy at the center of the controversy is supposed to be a coronavirus microbe.
  • Event 201 offered the plushies to people who registered to attend an October 2019 gathering that was designed to help plan for a global pandemic by bringing together business, government, and public health leaders.
  • Event 201 used a fictionalized coronavirus outbreak as its pandemic scenario but did not "predict" the outbreak of a strain that would be detected two months later in December 2019 in Wuhan, China.
  • Microbe plushies representing a number of diseases are widely available for sale.
  • The Event 201 plushies were not intended to commemorate the toll that the coming outbreak would bring.
  • Our rating is Mostly False.

 

A small stuffed toy is fanning the flames of another coronavirus conspiracy theory.

A Jan. 27 Facebook post about an adorable plushie drew attention to an October 2019 gathering called Event 201. It was designed to help plan for a global pandemic by bringing together business, government, and public health leaders.

"Nobody has been able to explain why they gave out stuffed souvenir Coronavirus toys at #Event201 yet," the post reads. "Almost like this is big fun — for them. Or maybe it’s to commemorate the virus that’ll make them a fortune on vaccines & other treatments we will be forced to buy — Thoughts?"

Underneath the post are three photos: a screen grab of Jan. 27 tweet from the Daily Mail showing images of the coronavirus under a microscope and two images showing small, stuffed toys shaped like orange suns with red rays and black eyes.

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) We noticed that there have also been many tweets speculating about Event 201’s pandemic simulation.

So is it true that this plushie was distributed in commemoration of the coronavirus outbreak? Did the organizers of Event 201 have insider knowledge about this global health scare? 

No.

Here’s what we know. 

The toy at the center of the controversy is supposed to be a microbe.

Featured Fact-check

Two months before the outbreak of Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) was detected in Wuhan, China, the Event 201 scenario — which was organized by John Hopkins Center for Health Security World Economic Forum and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation —"simulated a novel zoonotic coronavirus transmitted from bats to pigs to people that eventually becomes efficiently transmissible from person to person, leading to a severe pandemic," according to the Event 201 website

The fictionalized scenario, which was planned in part because there have been two worldwide outbreaks of coronaviruses in the last 20 years, also included 65 million related deaths in 18 months from the pretend coronavirus.

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security on Oct. 16, 2019, tweeted a picture of the stuffed microbe as part of its Event 201 registration drive: "Have you registered for the #Event201 virtual pandemic exercise yet?" the tweet read. "See the story of #Event201 play out in real-time and answer tough questions that could arise in a severe pandemic. Register today and be entered to win one of our Event201 giant microbes!" 

Have you registered for the #Event201 virtual pandemic exercise yet? See the story of #Event201 play out in real-time and answer tough questions that could arise in a severe pandemic. Register today and be entered to win one of our Event201 giant microbes! https://t.co/phz7Qc0LQL pic.twitter.com/fJZdjH1fVi

— Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (@JHSPH_CHS) October 16, 2019

On Jan. 24, 2020, the John Hopkins Center for Health Security released a statement clarifying that they had not been predicting the current coronavirus outbreak:

"To be clear, the Center for Health Security and partners did not make a prediction during our tabletop exercise. For the scenario, we modeled a fictional coronavirus pandemic, but we explicitly stated that it was not a prediction."

A World Economic Forum article stated that the Event 201 simulation of a pandemic was meant to "bring together public and private leaders to inform multi-stakeholder cooperation for pandemic preparedness and response." The article argues there needs to be pandemic simulations like these to prepare for the average of 200 epidemics that take place annually. Johns Hopkins has hosted other simulations in recent years, including Dark Winter in 2001, Atlantic Storm in 2005, and Clade X in 2018.

Our ruling

A Facebook post says that Event 201 in October 2019 gave out stuffed coronavirus plushies to commemorate a coronavirus outbreak that didn’t start until December 2019.

Yes, these plushies are meant to represent coronavirus microbes. They were given out in October — two months before the first cases of the current 2019 coronavirus outbreak appeared — but this was not because the event’s organizers had predicted the Novel Coronavirus to come. They were distributed as part of the registration for a New York event that was centered on preparing for a new coronavirus pandemic because of the history of outbreaks. These plushies were not intended to commemorate the toll that outbreak would bring.

Context is everything. We rate this claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

PolitiFact, Fact-checking hoaxes and conspiracies about the coronavirus, Jan. 24 2020

Facebook post, Jan. 27, 2020

Event 201, About Event 201, visited on Jan. 31, 2020

Tweet, Jan. 27, 2020

Tweet, Jan. 26, 2020

Tweet, Jan. 25, 2020

Event 201, Event 201 Scenario, visited on Jan. 31, 2020

CDC, Human Coronavirus Types, Jan. 10, 2020

Tweet, Oct. 16, 2019

Giantmicrobes.com, Ebola (Ebola Virus), visited on Jan. 30, 2020

Johns Hopkins, Statement about nCoV and our pandemic exercise, visited on Jan. 30, 2020

World Economic Forum, Live Simulation Exercise to Prepare Public and Private Leaders for Pandemic Response, Oct. 15, 2020

Johns Hopkins, About the Exercise | Dark Winter, June 2001

Johns Hopkins, Atlantic Storm & Atlantic Storm Interactive, Jan. 2005

Johns Hopkins, About Clade X, May 2018

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These plushies do not ‘commemorate’ the 2019 Novel coronavirus strain

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