After 9/11, the people in charge of the stockpile were concerned about bioterrorism—threats like anthrax—and sudden, mass-casualty events like, say, a bombing at the Super Bowl. This made some sense, but in the process officials took their foot off the pandemic-preparedness gas pedal. The response to the 2009 swine-flu pandemic was seen as a success, and the stockpile-minders moved on to the next item on their disaster checklist. “I think as human beings, we sometimes, not that we get complacent, but it’s like, Oh, we’ve got this. And we did. We had it,” says Deborah Levy, who oversaw the stockpile as acting division director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013 and 2014, while Burel was in another role.
Because officials weren’t as worried about pandemic flu, they stocked fewer basic medical supplies, like masks, that would come in handy during an infectious-disease outbreak. Officials thought the stockpile should have bioweapon antidotes and other drugs that aren’t easily available on store shelves, rather than common items you can buy at CVS. “The Strategic National Stockpile was built to respond primarily to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear events, whether by a terrorist, or a state actor, or something that might happen along those same lines that was accidental,” Burel told me.
Since then, other changes to the stockpile might have made it less capable to handle crises like the one we’re living through.