George W. Bush's 2005 Warning Resurfaces: Waiting for a Pandemic to Start Preparing 'Will Be Too Late'

"One day many lives could be needlessly lost because we failed to act today," President Bush said in a 2005 speech

George W. Bush
President George W. Bush in November 2005. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty

Amid widespread scrutiny of the federal government’s response to the spread of the novel coronavirus, a new report has highlighted a warning former President George W. Bush issued more than a decade ago about the potential catastrophe of not being properly prepared for a pandemic.

Speaking with former aides to President Bush, ABC News this week outlined his insistence on trying to ready the country for the next major outbreak, which began after he picked up a book about the Spanish Flu of 1918 while on vacation in 2005.

“He said, ‘Look, this happens every 100 years. We need a national strategy,’ ” Fran Townsend, who served as an adviser on Homeland Security, told ABC in an article published Sunday. “He said to me, ‘It may not happen on our watch, but the nation needs the plan.’ ”

Former adviser Karl Rove has also reflected on how the threat of a pandemic spread through the West Wing. “I’ve told people more than once during this last couple of months that as scary as the briefings were about the war on terror, the scariest briefings I had at the White House were about pandemics,” he said to Fox News.

Although Bush, now 73, set out ambitious plans to fund new technology to develop vaccines and stockpile much-needed supplies like ventilators and face masks, ABC News reported that as other crises came to the forefront during his time in office, preparing for the threat of an as-of-yet nonexistent pandemic took a back seat.

Pandemic preparedness was also the subject of a 2005 speech that Bush gave while addressing the National Institutes of Health.

“Seasonal flu is extremely dangerous for some — people whose immune systems have been weakened by age or illness. But it is not usually life-threatening for most healthy people. Pandemic flu is another matter,” he said at the time, noting that “unlike seasonal flu, most people have not built up resistance to it.”

“At this moment, there is no pandemic influenza in the United States or the world. But if history is our guide, there is reason to be concerned,” he continued. “A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire: If caught early, it might be extinguished with limited damage; if allowed to smolder undetected, it can grow to an inferno that spreads quickly beyond our ability to control it.”

In a particularly resonant moment more than a decade before the coronavirus emerged, Bush warned of the devastation that could occur if Americans were not properly prepared.

“It is vital that our nation discuss and address the threat of pandemic flu now,” he said. “There is no pandemic flu in our country or in the world at this time — but 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.”

Last week, the White House coronavirus task force announced they believe that, at best, between 100,000 and 240,000 people could die in America from the novel coronavirus pandemic. But officials stressed then that with social distancing and other counter-measures, they would work to ensure a lower death toll.

As of Monday, there had been at least 336,776 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S. and more than 9,000 people have died, according to available data.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.

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