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Faulty Gear Hinders U.S. Bioagent Detection Program
A federal biological-weapon detection effort used faulty sampling equipment between 2007 and 2009, worsening a problem of inaccurate results already faced by the initiative, the Los Angeles Times reported on Monday.
An earlier Times report enumerated a number of technical shortcomings of the Biowatch program, which deploys scanners that monitor the environment for disease agents in more than 30 cities. Biowatch detectors from 2003 through 2009 raised in excess of 50 misleading warnings of a potential bioterrorism attack.
In a move aimed at lowering worker expenses and speeding up identification of a possible biological strike, Homeland Security in 2007 deployed the first "multiplex assays" designed to identify several types of harmful biological materials. Prior technology incorporated a number of parts, each geared toward spotting a particular threat.
The new equipment later proved inadequate for the Biowatch initiative in assessments requested by Homeland Security after it received advice from biology experts across the government. The agency also heard worried feedback from laboratory staffers responsible for analyzing detector samples. Roughly three years ago, the department resumed use of the earlier sampling gear.
The intended replacement technology -- designed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- proved less able to detect biological-weapon agents than anticipated by DHS personnel, according to experts. Like the older equipment, it also failed in trials to discern tularemia bacteria from harmless "near neighbors" common in nature.
The older sampling parts "were past their life cycle and in constant need of repair," and information from Livermore laboratory trials "supported the use of the (new) technology," according to microbiology specialist Richard Meyer. The expert aided in creating the next-generation equipment as a CDC official, and he oversaw its deployment as a DHS consultant.
Meyer's relationship with Homeland Security eventually ended as a result of the multiplex assays' inadequate functioning, he said.