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Biowatch Contributors Pointed to Inaccurate Readings: Documents

A U.S. biological strike detection program's vulnerability to generating erroneous alerts has concerned technical contributors since the year of its inception, the Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday.

The United States since 2003 has fielded biological agent sensors in more than 30 metropolitan areas under the Biowatch program. The equipment generated no fewer than 56 erroneous positive findings for disease threats, but authorities never dispersed countermeasures or forced people to vacate an area based on information from the system, according to a recent Times investigation.

Bolstering the equipment's accuracy was the aim of technology described in five intellectual rights requests submitted to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from 2003 to 2006 by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

One submission from December 2006 said "the existing methods for detecting" dispersal of an infectious pathogen are "inadequate."

Existing capabilities yield a "higher than acceptable rate of false positive ... results," it said. "False positive results lead to confusion regarding whether (a pathogen) is actually present and whether protective measures should immediately be implemented."

Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Alexander Garza, though, in July said "there has never been a false positive result" under the Biowatch initiative.

Each of the five laboratory requests received approval, but the Homeland Security Department refused to specify if Biowatch now employs any of the described technologies. Spokesman Peter Boogaard stated only that scanning capabilities "are constantly evolving, and the Biowatch program aims to utilize the best, most reliable resources."

The proposals were each geared toward refining Biowatch capabilities, according to one of the seven specialists identified in the rights requests. Technical experts had sought "ways of increasing specificity," biology specialist Gary Andersen said in reference to means for telling microbes apart.

A biological substance prompted each of the previous Biowatch alerts, meaning the equipment has produced no "false positive," according DHS personnel. The department's explanation did not receive backing from a National Academy of Sciences body; Homeland Security referred to the incidents as "Biowatch Actionable Results," but the NAS group described them as "BAR false positives."

State and jurisdictional authorities have expressed a lack of trust in the Biowatch network, and government personnel have backed away from a proposed expansion to airports over fears of causing unjustified delays. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would only transfer medical countermeasures to the location of a biological strike after secondary checks verify a Biowatch notification, CDC officials said to White House staffers last November.

Insiders said erroneous Biowatch readings have prompted a high-ranking government figure to call for the withdrawal of program equipment from New York City. Such gear was undergoing trials in 2008 within city subway lines.

Area authorities cannot reasonably be expected to make sense of Biowatch data, said Richard Falkenrath, who joined the New York Police Department as an antiterrorism staffer after counseling the White House on biological armaments readiness from 2001 to 2006.

"We are not deploying these to do science projects. We are deploying these to respond when they go off," Falkenrath said at a 2010 event. He said a sensor apparatus is not of use if law enforcement personnel cannot act on it right away, and instead must "debate on conference calls about whether we can trust that result."

"And if it doesn't meet that criteria, I don't want it in my city," he stated.

It is uncertain if "the top-most federal officials, including my former boss, President Bush, appreciated what the nature of the early warning system was ... and what would happen if it went off," Falkenrath said.

Maryland Health and Mental Hygiene Department medical chief Albert Romanosky added: "We found out in Maryland that they had deployed Biowatch collectors indoors, at a facility that we knew nothing about." His comments at the 2010 gathering did not specify the site.

"And then we got a positive result. On the conference call, it's a debate about what it means. ... The federal officials on the call were saying, 'Oh, it doesn't mean anything. It's nothing; don't respond,'" Romanosky said.

The equipment produced additional inaccurate alerts in Maryland, said Jack DeBoy, then the state's public health laboratory head.

"Quite frankly, we had a whole bunch of them," DeBoy said.

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