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Homeland Security Agency Vacillates on ‘False’ Bioweapon Warnings

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

Hazardous materials specialists in New Jersey prepare to take part in a 2005 biological terrorism exercise. The Obama administration has yet to decide whether possible warnings from a proposed national biological-weapon detection system should be classified as "false" if they are triggered by harmless microbial cousins of potentially dangerous disease agents, a U.S. Homeland Security Department official said this week (AP Photo/Mike Derer). Hazardous materials specialists in New Jersey prepare to take part in a 2005 biological terrorism exercise. The Obama administration has yet to decide whether possible warnings from a proposed national biological-weapon detection system should be classified as "false" if they are triggered by harmless microbial cousins of potentially dangerous disease agents, a U.S. Homeland Security Department official said this week (AP Photo/Mike Derer).

WASHINGTON -- If a proposed multibillion-dollar biological attack warning system alerted U.S. authorities to a microbe that turned out to be harmless, could the warning be considered “false?” The Obama administration still has not made up its mind, a U.S. official said on Tuesday.

An existing biological-weapon network raised more than 50 such alarms in six years, but the Homeland Security Department has rejected use of the word “false” to describe them. Last year, a DHS official instead called the warnings “actionable results” for state and local leaders to consider in assessing the need for an emergency response.

The parsing of words could take on crucial significance as lawmakers consider the push to acquire and deploy a third generation of detection gear for the Biowatch network. In more than 30 U.S. cities, Biowatch sensors routinely sample the air for organisms that could alert officials to the spread of a deadly disease agent.

Technology for the system has cost more than $1 billion since 2003. Congressional auditors estimate that the new equipment would require nearly six times that amount to roll out and maintain over a decade, according to a House committee briefing document.

The department has not yet decided if an alert from the planned system should be labeled “false” if it flags out a harmless microbial cousin to a potential biological-weapon agent, DHS Biowatch Program Manager Michael Walter said in response to a question by Representative Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.).

Citing one source of prior warnings, Walters said the system previously could not distinguish innocuous forms of tularemia bacteria from “subtypes of these organisms that actually cause the disease.”

“What we were detecting was actually there. It was Francisella tularensis,” Walters said, referencing the tularemia species that includes benign and potentially harmful bacteria.

The government has begun using filters capable of identifying certain strains as harmless, a top official for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at a Tuesday hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

The “Biowatch Generation 3” sensor technology would be designed to automatically conduct routine air sampling for dangerous organisms like tularemia and anthrax. As things stand, laboratories must regularly remove and analyze filters from Biowatch sensors, producing time lags that Homeland Security officials believe could delay a response to an actual biological strike.

House appropriators cited Generation 3 procurement delays when they moved this month to slash Biowatch funding $11.1 million below the Obama administration’s $90.6 million request for fiscal 2014.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet scheduled its markup of the House legislation, a spokeswoman said on Thursday. Panel representatives did not comment by press time on possible future funding details for the Biowatch program.

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