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Congress Demanding Info on Biowatch Tech Troubles

A number of senior U.S. lawmakers from both parties are calling on the Homeland Security Department to provide them with internal documents on a program aimed at detecting a biological weapons attack, the Los Angeles Times reported on Thursday (see GSN, July 13).

A recent Times investigation highlighted a number of technological failings with the Biowatch system, which fields disease agent scanners in more than 30 cities. Those sensors between 2003 and 2009 raised in excess of 50 false alarms of a possible biological attack, according to government data. Computer simulations have also concluded the biosensor network is unreliable. Homeland Security officials, though, continue to stand behind the technology and are asking Congress for fiscal 2013 funding to advance development of a more advanced generation of sensors (see GSN, July 9 and GSN, April 5).

House Homeland Security Committee Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and energy Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) have all written to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano requesting information about Biowatch. Stearns and Upton in their joint letter asked for department papers and electronic communications regarding the program.

The requested information could "assist the committee in finding out how the Biowatch program is actually performing, and whether it is meeting public protection goals without unduly disrupting the public health system and local emergency responders," Upton and Stearns wrote. The two Republican lawmakers also wrote to the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Thomas Frieden, requesting materials having to do with Biowatch.

Thompson asked Napolitano to furnish information about the ongoing development of third-generation of Biowatch sensors, which the Times report revealed have a problematic trial record within and outside of laboratory settings.

The Mississippi lawmaker said it was worrisome that "in this austere budget environment, the department appears committed to the development of this program -- at the expense of other important Homeland Security programs -- despite evidence that an accurate, effective Biowatch technology program may not be feasible."

Homeland Security chief medical officer Alexander Garza last week rejected the findings of the Times report and stood behind the Biowatch program, noting that 37 detection incidents involved pathogens that occur in nature. "To date, more than 7 million tests have been performed by dedicated public health lab officials and there has never been a false positive result," Garza wrote in a statement on the DHS website.

Upton and Stearns were not persuaded by Garza's argument. "We note that Dr. Garza's representation that Biowatch has never had a false positive result is at odds not only with the incidents reported by the Los Angeles Times but also with the observation in an October 2010 report on the Biowatch program by the National Academy of Sciences," the two lawmakers said in their letter.

An unidentified DHS spokesman on Thursday said the department would address the lawmakers' concerns "directly, not through the media" (David Willman, Los Angeles Times, July 19).

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