Whether or not it will be heeded, one of the key learnings from COVID-19 is that preparedness planning for future infectious disease outbreaks cannot be shortchanged. And while the pandemic continues to overshadow other potential viral outbreaks, a campaign out of Wunderman Thompson is aiming to change that.

The agency recently developed a smallpox simulator for Meridian, maker of a smallpox medication that could be used to mitigate potential outbreaks. The simulator is a data visualization tool designed to help governments around the world test and prepare for smallpox outbreaks.

While vaccines eradicated smallpox some four decades ago, small amounts of the virus still exist in certain laboratories in the U.S. and Russia, according to the National Institutes of Health. With the simulator, Meridian and Wunderman Thompson were hoping to call attention to the non-zero risk of future outbreaks — say, if a synthetic version of the virus is created in a lab and weaponized.

The goal is to show health and military leaders around the globe that a lack of preparation could result in damage and unnecessary deaths, according to Wunderman Thompson Health EVP, chief creative officer Tuesday Poliak.

“The smallpox simulator became a creative solution because it was something that was going to show in real-time what would happen to a particular country,” Poliak said.

The Wunderman Thompson team decided to take a visual approach, informed by data.

“When you’re talking about a disease that was supposed to be eradicated 40 years ago, the consumer would often ask, ‘How real is this and how would it impact me?’” noted Wunderman Thompson Data chief data officer Jason Carmel. “You can tell a story using words and convey the threat, but conveying it through a data visualization that shows your country going from blue to red as everyone becomes infected is inherently powerful.”

That visualization would demonstrate how quickly a weaponized smallpox event could spread across a country — tailored to each country’s unique population, stockpile and preparedness.

“It’s a question of finding out what the impact of smallpox would be over a particular population and then allowing people and governments to apply known mitigations,” Carmel explained. “Do people still get smallpox vaccines in my country? Will there be social distancing? Will there be quarantining at the right times and using all of that to determine an outcome? It allows the salesperson and the customer to sit down and walk through the scenario that they think is most likely for their country.”

To develop the simulator, the project team took an older version of a smallpox model and updated it using current data. They converted it into code, then ran the simulations over a map to visualize the potential impact.

The resulting tool shows how hotspots could evolve over a 120-day period if smallpox is released in a country, as well as how infrastructure could be overrun. It also approximates death rates and trailing death rates.

Not surprisingly, Wunderman Thompson’s work was informed by the spread of COVID-19 across the globe.

“It was a fascinating technical challenge both to find and update a smallpox model, and then to take all of this very relevant COVID-19 data and use parts of it to make the model much more real,” Carmel said.

While Carmel acknowledged that the smallpox simulator is far from a typical healthcare marketing campaign, he said it affirms the power of data visualization.

“Data visualization is the core component to inspire emotion,” he added. “The whole concept of flattening the curve is geometric. The fact that it became part of the common parlance of what was going on in the world is indicative of how people started to recognize and understand data that way. So for us to be able to use a similar approach to solving this problem is unique.”