Global Security Newswire
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Bioagent Detection Web Covers Most of U.S. Populace
A federal program that deploys air monitors throughout the United States to test for the presence of biological warfare agents now covers approximately four-fifths of the U.S. populace, the Associated Press reported on Friday (see GSN, Nov. 19, 2010).
The Biowatch program is one example of the fashion in which scientists working at federal laboratories have become key to U.S. biological defense efforts, according to AP.
The Biowatch detectors are deployed in 30 major U.S. population centers in hopes of quickly identifying the intentional dispersal of a disease agent. In such a case, authorities could move people out of the area and begin providing medical countermeasures to potential victims.
While the federal government will not identify the specific jurisdictions, the list is known to include New York and Washington, D.C. Also left unsaid are how many units each city had received, details on the appearance of the detectors and the types of bacteria and viruses can detect. The secrecy is intended to prevent would-be terrorists from learning how to evade the technology.
Since going live, Biowatch detectors have alerted authorities on multiple occasions to the potential presence of biological warfare materials. In each of those incidents, however, subsequent laboratory analysis revealed the detected pathogens developed from nature rather than malicious intent.
To be cost-productive, the program must quickly analyze air samples and determine if they pose a threat to public health. A false positive that led to cancellation of a major event would undermine trust in the program, officials said.
"We have to be able to make millions of measurements and never have a single false positive measurement," said David Rakestraw, WMD countermeasures chief at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
The U.S. government since 2003 has invested in excess of $500 million on Biowatch, according to research from the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity. Much of the program's expense comes from the work required to remove all of the monitors' air filters and have them analyzed. The high degree of personnel involvement is one of the program's primary vulnerabilities, informed officials said.
"What we basically deployed were glorified vacuum cleaners," former Homeland Security Department anti-WMD research director Penrose Albright said.
Next-generation technology, though, could bring significant cost-productiveness to the system, Albright and others said. More advanced monitors are able to check for more than 3,000 different kinds of pathogens and can digitally send a notice to laboratories when a bioterror threat is found. Trials on the new systems are expected in five cities through 2012.
There are public health officials, however, who still question the efficacy of Biowatch, contending that more conventional methods for detecting disease outbreaks, such as surveying emergency room and hospital patient traffic, make more sense.
"I think we have to be realistic about what the value is" of Biowatch," Michigan public health laboratories director Frances Downes said.
Downes has testified before Congress that Biowatch is consuming large amounts of public health laboratory assets without providing a reasonable return on investment.
"It's not all that we need," she said. "We can't assume it's a safety blanket and it's covering us and we're always going to know about a (bioterror) attack" (Marcus Wohlsen, Associated Press/Yahoo!News, Aug. 26).