News and Commentary

FLASHBACK: George W. Bush Warned America Was Unprepared For A Pandemic
Former U.S. President George W. Bush listens speaking during the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. The third annual Forum brings together important global leaders from the public and private sectors to address the threats from global warming to economic prosperity and examine the opportunities for solutions.
Photographer: Bess Adler/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The writings were on the wall for a potentially catastrophic pandemic going all the way back to the early aughts. In fact, the possibility was so real that former President George W. Bush told his aides to formulate a detailed plan on how the country should respond to such a crisis.

According to ABC News, President Bush became “obsessed” with the possibility of a pandemic after reading historian John M. Barry’s book “The Great Influenza,” which chronicled the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic that killed 17 to 50 million people globally.

From the report:

Thus was born the nation’s most comprehensive pandemic plan – a playbook that included diagrams for a global early warning system, funding to develop new, rapid vaccine technology, and a robust national stockpile of critical supplies, such as face masks and ventilators, Townsend said.

The effort was intense over the ensuing three years, including exercises where cabinet officials gamed out their responses, but it was not sustained. Large swaths of the ambitious plan were either not fully realized or entirely shelved as other priorities and crises took hold.

Fran Townsend, former Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, said that many of the plans laid out by the Bush administration were implemented by the Trump administration once the pandemic hit.

“Despite politics, despite changes, when a crisis hits, you pull what you’ve got off the shelf and work from there,” Townsend said.

Speaking to the National Institutes of Health in 2005, President Bush depicted in stunning detail how a pandemic would unfold in the United States, from the depletion of medical supplies to its fast rate of infection.

“A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire,” Bush said in his speech. “If caught early, it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smolder, undetected, it can grow to an inferno that can spread quickly beyond our ability to control it.”

“To respond to a pandemic, we need medical personnel and adequate supplies of equipment,” he later added. “In a pandemic, everything from syringes to hospital beds, respirators masks and protective equipment, would be in short supply.”

Bush went on to note that scientists would need to quickly develop a vaccine in order to get the country back on its feet.

“If a pandemic strikes, our country must have a surge capacity in place that will allow us to bring a new vaccine on line quickly and manufacture enough to immunize every American against the pandemic strain,” he said.

Getting prophetic, Bush warned, “If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare. And one day, many lives could be needlessly lost because we failed to act today.”

Though Bush put in place a $7 billion plan and launched the still-operational website,, it ultimately failed to continue justifying itself budget-wise.

“You need to have annual budget commitment. You need to have institutions that can survive any one administration. And you need to have leadership experience,” said Tom Bossert, who worked in the Bush White House. “All three of those can be effected by our wonderful and unique form of government in which you transfer power every four years.”

Bush declined to comment on the current crisis or the pandemic plan he had in place.

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