George W. Bush Tried To Develop A Pandemic Response System In 2005, Warned That It Was A Matter Of Time

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Back in 2005, then-president George W. Bush read a book about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, a largely-forgotten event that had likely killed 50-100 million people. The book inspired Bush to convene his advisers, cabinet members, and other government officials to develop a nationwide pandemic response.

“You’ve got to read this. He said, ‘Look, this happens every 100 years. We need a national strategy,'” Bush told his Homeland Security Advisor, Fran Townsend, at the time, after having read historian John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza.

Over the next three years, Bush’s team would develop a comprehensive plan to respond to a global pandemic, particularly if the disease reached the United States. The plan included possibilities for an early warning system; funding to develop a vaccine; and stockpiles of supplies, such as masks and ventilators.

At the time, many of Bush’s inner circle weren’t convinced of the need for a nationwide pandemic response.

Townsend, for example, had enough on her plate at the time.

“My reaction was — I’m buried. I’m dealing with counterterrorism. Hurricane season. Wildfires. I’m like, ‘What?'” she said.

Bush, however, reminded her that while a pandemic might not happen during his administration, it would happen eventually.

CAMP PENDLETON, CA - DECEMBER 7: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks to Marines on the 63rd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 2004 at Camp Pendleton, California. More than 21,000 Marines serving in Iraq and neighboring nations are part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force based at Camp Pendleton, which has one of the highest casualty rates in the U.S.-led war in Iraq. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Featured image credit: David McNew

Tom Bossert, who worked in the Bush White House, says that Bush was “obsessed” with the idea of a pandemic. Further, he says that, though some members of Bush’s inner circle were dismissive of the idea of the pandemic, other things happened during the Bush administration that made Bossert realize that nothing was off the table.

“It was not a novel. It was the world we were living,” he said.

In 2005, Bush spoke to the National Institutes of Health. In his speech, he compared a pandemic to a forest fire, saying that if it’s caught early, the damage can be limited. Ignored, it can get out of control.

In the audience for his speech that night was none other than Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious-disease specialist who has now become the public face of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

“In a pandemic, everything from syringes to hospital beds, respirators masks and protective equipment would be in short supply,” he said at the time.

However, the pandemic response plan was never fully implemented. Over the course of the next three years, it would be bedeviled by funding and staffing issues, as well as curtailed by other events that required more attention.

Contacted by ABC News, a Bush spokesperson declined to comment on the current pandemic.