The Strategic National Stockpile was formed in 1999 as a repository for vaccines, antibiotics, and other medical supplies to be tapped by states during public health emergencies. It’s composed of 12 cavernous, highly secretive facilities across the US, according to NBC News, which got rare inside access. The warehouse NBC toured spanned the equivalent of six football fields with row after row of cardboard boxes. All told, the stockpile held $8.5 billion in supplies prior to 2020, but when the pandemic hit, most of it proved to be useless in regard to fighting COVID. Federal officials have been working to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it, but it’s no simple matter.
In particular, the stockpile fell way short on PPE, especially N-95 masks. In a report to Congress in March 2020, HHS officials estimated the country needed about 3.5 billion N-95s to weather COVID-19. At the time, the nation had 35 million, including just 12 million in the stockpile, many of them expired. And though the stockpile contained ventilators, they were not the type most health care workers had been trained to use. The stockpile is overseen by a division of HHS, but decisions about its contents fall “to a highly bureaucratic and secretive multi-agency group of government health officials called the Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise, or PHEMCE,” per NBC. That group always focused on relatively unlikely threats, like smallpox or anthrax attacks, and it figured “the market” would take care of PPE.
Furthermore, due to secrecy concerns, health-care professionals and manufacturers were never in the loop, now seen as a critical oversight. To address the shortcomings, the Biden administration has created the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response (ASPR), which will be on equal footing with the FDA and CDC, per the Washington Post. The agency has plenty of work ahead. As the New York Times reports, the recent monkeypox outbreak has exposed another critical error: although 20 million potentially effective vaccine doses were stockpiled, all but 2,400 had expired. Ten weeks into the outbreak, more doses may not be available for months. (Read more Department of Health and Human Services stories.)