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Universe of Threats – Pathogen Threat Contest

The COVID-19 pandemic killed millions of people and wreaked social and economic havoc worldwide. The last three years revealed catastrophic deficiencies in our surveillance systems, pandemic playbooks, and ability to anticipate political, social and economic interdependencies that amplified the threat.

CAPTRS is tackling the failure of imagination that plagued our response to COVID-19. We are building a catalog of pathogen threat scenarios that will be used to hone pandemic preparedness strategies and train future decision makers. The catalog will include a wide range of plausible threats, including hypothetical pathogens and cascading global events, far beyond those we have experienced in the past. This is the first of three essay contests we will run in 2023. We will launch a contest this summer on the topic of critical infrastructure and supplies, and another contest in the fall on the topic of natural disasters, including wildfires and floods.

Essay Contest

This is where you come in! This contest is your opportunity to help the world prepare for future pandemic threats and to win a generous cash prize.

We invite you to submit an original essay, describing a pathogen threat scenario. Scenarios must include both a plausible pathogen emergence story and interdependent social, economic, political, environmental or technological forces that shape the unfolding threat. We hope to see variety in submissions and welcome essays focused on different points in the timeline of the threat emergence and spread. We also encourage you to use your own voice and style. The examples below are from a staff writer, and represent only one style.

Along with the essay, you must submit a one-page ground truth document which specifies that underlying characteristics of the pathogen, the human populations in which it is spreading, and the unfolding response that may not be explicitly stated in the essay.

We encourage you to look to science and social science in developing your narrative, while boldly thinking outside the box! You may optionally submit one of the following documents to support the plausibility of the scenario: a one-page description of background research, a one-page list of references, or a one-page letter of support from an expert in the field.

CAPTRS will award $25,000 in prizes!

First place – $10,000
Second place – $5,000 (up to 2 winners)
Third place – $1,000 (up to 5 winners)

**All winning submissions will be published on the CAPTRS website.


Submission Timeline: Applications open May 1, 2023 at 12 a.m. and close July 31, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. You must create an account in Apply to submit your essay.


Contributions will be judged anonymously by a panel of CAPTRS team members and guest judges, composed of experts in relevant disciplinary fields. All decisions made by the panel will be final.  

Submissions will be evaluated holistically, with particular attending to the following dimensions: 

  • Overall creativity – we are looking for scenarios that challenge our preparedness paradigm
  • Plausibility of the pathogen threat (no zombies!)
  • Complexity and plausibility of the cascading societal factors
  • Level of difficulty posed for current pandemic response capabilities
  • Consistency with the submitted ground truth characteristics
  • Quality of writing

Awards and Publishing:

Winning entries will be announced by September 30, and will be published on the CAPTRS website. Additional prize money may be awarded at the judges’ discretion


  • You must be 18 years of age or older to participate in this contest. You may submit as an individual or a team. Teams can include up to 6 members and must identify a team lead. All team members must be at least 18 years of age or older. If a team is selected as a winner, the prize money will be awarded to the team lead to split amongst the group.
  • CAPTRS employees, contractors, founders or advisory board members and their immediate families are not eligible to participate.
  • The essays are limited to a maximum of 2,500 words, and must be written in English.
  • The ground truth information will be entered into a separate section on the application. The ground truth is limited to a maximum of 1,000 words
  • The optional supporting documentation is limited to one page. This may be a list of references, description of background research, or a letter of support from an expert in a related field.
  • Submissions generated in whole or in part by artificial intelligence will be automatically disqualified from the contest.
  • You may submit your entry for publication in another forum, but you must inform us immediately if your submitted work is accepted for publication. If you submission is published elsewhere, you will not be disqualified.


You may use these ground truth and narrative scenario examples as a guide. If you have any questions about these examples or the contest, contact Georgia Thomsen.

Ground Truth Examples:


Amoebic Dysentery

Narrative Scenario Examples:


Amoebic Dysentery

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