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Disbanded by Obama, ignored by Trump: How George W Bush's elite virus experts could have saved America

Bush had warned against a pandemic hitting US hard after reading a book on the 1918 pandemic and set up the team of doctors
UPDATED MAY 11, 2021
George W Bush had proposed a plan in 2005 to tackle a likely pandemic but his successors Barack Obama and Donald Trump were less interested (Getty Images)
George W Bush had proposed a plan in 2005 to tackle a likely pandemic but his successors Barack Obama and Donald Trump were less interested (Getty Images)

The US has been hit the worst by the pandemic with more than 32 million affected and 580,000 dead. Former President Donald Trump, who was going steady and hoped to win his re-election last year, was eventually voted out of power. His successor Joe Biden has found a tough task in hand to steer the country out of the mess which has taken a toll on not only public health but also human emotions and the economy.

But had the American leadership over the years paid heed to one former president’s observations on pandemics, then the country might have succeeded in averting the disaster by a great degree. In the summer of 2005, former Commander-in-chief George W Bush had called up his aides after reading a book on the 1918 flu pandemic during a vacation in Texas, where he currently resides. He had even set up a team of experts to deal with pandemic planning and they went on to predict how grave the current crisis could become despite the team getting dissolved once Bush was out of power. 


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On his return to Washington, the Republican had told Fran Townsend, who was his homeland security adviser then, about the book by John M Barry called ‘The Great Influenza’ in which the author wrote in details about the mysterious plague that “would kill more people than the outbreak of any other diseases in human history”.

Former homeland security adviser Frances Townsend (Getty Images)

In April last year, when the US found it increasingly getting engulfed by the pandemic’s threat, ABC News quoted Townsend as saying about Bush telling her: “You’ve got to read this. Look, this happens every 100 years. We need a national strategy”.

Soon, a comprehensive pandemic plan was born. Townsend, who is the president of non-profit organization Counter Extremism Project, said. According to her, the plan included a playbook that featured diagrams for a global early warning system, funding for developing new and rapid vaccine technology and a strong national stockpile of critical supplies like face masks and ventilators, the ABC News report added.

For the next three years, the Bush administration worked intensely on the issue but it did not continue over time. Parts of the plan were either not realized fully or completely shelved as other crises were prioritized. But when the latest pandemic hit the US, the unfinished plan of Bush was referred to for dealing with the situation. “Despite politics, despite changes, when a crisis hits, you pull what you've got off the shelf and work from there,” Townsend said.

Bush’s aides had initial doubts

When the former president told his aides about the plan to deal with a future pandemic, many of them had doubts, including Townsend herself. She felt “buried” when Bush told her about his plan since the administration was already dealing with other serious challenges like terrorism (9/11 had happened just years ago), hurricanes (the devastating Katrina had hit the US the same year) and wildfires. Bush, however, told her that the pandemic might not be something that would happen as long as they were in power, yet America needed a plan. Bush’s aides worked for the plan in the months that followed and the 9/11 attacks had helped in a way. Officials were now not too cynical about possibilities of events that were unlikely but could leave behind a terrible impact.

Tom Bossert, another Bush aide who later served as the homeland security adviser to Trump, told ABC News: “There was a realization that it’s no longer fantastical to raise scenarios about planes falling from the sky, or anthrax arriving in the mail. It was not a novel. It was the world we were living.” According to Bossert, who now is an ABC News contributor, Bush had not only insisted on the preparation for a pandemic but was actually obsessed with it. 

Bush told scientists they would need to make vaccine in short time

In late 2005, Bush gave a speech at the National Institutes of Health where he laid out the details of his plan, envisioning how a pandemic would unfold in the US. Among those who heard him then was Dr Anthony Fauci, who is leading America’s response to the current crisis. Bush had warned then that a pandemic is like a forest fire, which if caught early, might be extinguished with limited damage. But if it was allowed to rage on, then it could spin out of control in no time. The president had also said that a pandemic outbreak was a different kind of challenge than the ones the federal government is equipped to address. 

Dr Anthony Fauci (Getty Images)

“To respond to a pandemic, we need medical personnel and adequate supplies of equipment. In a pandemic, everything from syringes to hospital beds, respirators masks and protective equipment would be in short supply,” the former president said, asking the scientists that would need to develop a vaccine in a short time.

The former president set out to devote $7 billion to give wings to his plan. His cabinet secretaries appealed to their staff members to take the preparations seriously. A government website by the name of was also launched and it continues to be in use today. But as Bossert pointed out, it became difficult to sustain the continued funding, staffing and attention for the plan over time. Bush left office in January 2009. Bush refused to comment on the current crisis or discuss the current response but what he said 15 years ago still rattles a lot of ears. “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,” the former president, aged 74 now, said.

Bush’s team to fight pandemic

The Bush administration set up a small team that would devote its time to planning for a likely pandemic outbreak. The members included doctors Carter Mecher, Rajeev Venkayya, Richard Hatchett and four others and they set up their base in Washington, DC. Among them, Carter did not even have a formal training in epidemiology but his nose for data and ability to figure out what to do in a crisis made him a key member of the team.

Carter, in fact, was always the first to identify a new infectious pandemic and what to make of it. This team of seven doctors came together behind the scenes each time the world found itself threatened biologically for more than a decade. Co-incidentally, it was Carter who first mentioned the existence of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, in an email to Harter in January 2020. The team had a nickname — Wolverines — named after the resistance group in the 1980s’ dystopian Cold War film ‘Red Dawn’, in which the Soviets made a successful invasion of the US.

The 'Swiss cheese' approach

Under Hatchett and Mecher, the team worked to build a strategy in times of a pandemic outbreak. Therein came the relevance of the ‘Swiss cheese approach’.  Venkayya wrote in a piece for the health news website Stat in April last year: “Led by Drs Richard Hatchett and Carter Mecher, we worked with disease modelers and key stakeholders to develop a strategy of early, coordinated interventions such as school closures and social distancing to delay and lower the peak of illnesses and to reduce the total number of cases in communities. Two years later we published this guidance, along with this now almost iconic graphic. Today this strategy is called flattening the curve,” he said.

“When explaining the strategy, we asked people to visualize each intervention, such as school closure, as a slice of Swiss cheese — an imperfect barrier to virus transmission as represented by the holes in the cheese. When multiple partially effective interventions are combined early in an outbreak, like stacked Swiss cheese slices, the gaps are covered and virus transmission is slowed, or even stopped," he said, explaining the model. 

What happened under Obama and Trump?

Former Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama (Getty Images)

Why couldn’t the US deal with the Covid-19 pandemic despite having the Wolverines’ expertise? During the administration of Barack Obama who succeeded Bush in 2009, the team had been dissolved after the swine flu of the same year was successfully contained. The Wolverines though remained in touch and people like Hatchett and Mecher did not completely stop working together. Mecher, in fact, was even collecting Chinese reports and cutting and pasting them into Google Translate to understand what was happening in that country where the pandemic reportedly originated.

China’s urgency to deal with the rising number of cases on its soil also made Mecher worried. Other Wolverines also chipped in to do their bit to understand how grave the situation was but those in power continued to overlook the situation to the nation’s peril. Under Trump, there was no concern whatsoever about natural disasters or diseases and his former national security adviser John Bolton was convinced that America’s real threat lied in other countries. Iran and North Korea topped the priority list but not a possible pandemic. Even as the scientific community kept on airing caution, Trump refused to see any big danger until it hit him hard in an election year.