Two weeks before China disclosed it was investigating a cluster of mysterious pneumonia cases in Wuhan in late 2019 — what the world now knows as COVID-19 — South Korea’s top health officials gathered for a quarterly table-top exercise to plan their response to a theoretical health threat.

The hazard? A never-before-seen pathogen emerging in China that was causing a spike in pneumonia cases.

The timing was a fluke. But the war-gaming, and choice of subject, wasn’t. South Korea had learned painful lessons from an outbreak just four years earlier of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS. The country overhauled the way it responds to diseases, giving it a global edge when COVID-19 hit.