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Clinton and Bush pandemic achievements

by Jim Hartman

As our nation continues to deal with COVID-19, we benefit from initiatives instituted by former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

In April 1998, President Clinton read the Robert Preston novel “The Cobra Event,” a fiction book about a mad scientist spreading a virus throughout New York City. As a result, he held a meeting with scientists and cabinet officials to discuss the threat of bioterrorism.

This led Clinton to discover the United States stockpiled drugs and vaccines for military use in pandemics, but not for civilians. By October 1998 , he signed a law spending $51 million to establish the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile, or NPS, a repository for drugs and vaccines at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for civilian use during pandemics.

While a modest beginning, the decision to accumulate medicines for the public to use was important.

After 9/11, President Bush examined all potential threats to the homeland, from terrorism to pandemics. He became convinced the NPS was too small. Bush increased its budget to $1.2 billion in 2002, adding $400 million in each of the next three years. This dramatically expanded the store of drugs and added personal protective gear and medical devices.

Bush renamed it the Strategic National Stockpile and opened depots around the country.

In the summer of 2005, while vacationing at his Crawford, Texas ranch, Bush read John M. Berry’s book “The Great Influenza,” about the 1918 flu pandemic that killed more than 500,000 Americans and an estimated 20 to 50 million around the world.

Bush reportedly couldn’t put the book down and was semi-obsessed with the issue of pandemics. He instructed members of his administration to come up with a plan.

“Look, this happens every 100 years,” he said. “We need a national strategy. 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 Bush administration worked on this project intensely for three years. His administration created the Pandemic Influenza Plan, an exhaustive 396-page document that was intended to be the government’s playbook for how to respond if a pandemic occurred.

“A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire,” Bush said in 2005. “If caught early, it might be extinguished with limited damage,” but if “allowed to smolder, undetected , it can grow to an inferno.”

Bush announced a national strategy with three prongs.

First, to detect pandemics early, he pressed countries to share information immediately with the World Health Organization. Second, Bush further increased stockpiles of critical supplies. Third, preparedness was emphasized—bringing together state and local officials to develop pandemic response plans.

However, COVID-19 has shown that foreign countries like China can delay and distort information. In addition, drugs lose potency, protective gear deteriorates, and machines need maintenance. Stockpiles must be replenished and plans updated.

Most significantly, threats change. The drug that succeeded in one pandemic can be useless in another. Equipment critical in one instance can be unneeded in the next.

Our current crisis requires new reforms that better prepare the United States for future pandemics. That begins with faster, more reliable testing and improved public health surveillance capabilities.

Experts urge the United States establish an immunization initiative to streamline creation of COVID-19 vaccines and ramp up domestic production of essential drugs and medical devices to reduce our dependence on an unreliable China -dominated supply chain.

In a press conference, President Trump was asked whether he had “any interest in reaching out” to former presidents. He said, “I don’t think I’m going to learn much.”

He might be surprised. Presidents Clinton and Bush might make a valuable bi-partisan contribution if asked to spearhead an effort on streamlining a COVID-19 vaccine and stepping up domestic essential drug and medical device production.

Jim Hartman is an attorney residing in Genoa. His e-mail address: lawdocman1@aol.com