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Homeland Security Official Rejects Reports Critical of Biowatch Program

A senior U.S. Homeland Security Department official on Thursday rejected a new report indicating significant technical problems with a program intended to provide early detection of biological terror incidents (see GSN, July 9).

The United States since 2003 has fielded biological agent sensors in more than 30 metropolitan areas under the Biowatch program. The Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday that the systems generated 56 erroneous positive findings for disease agent threats prior to 2009 and that there have been additional incidents in subsequent years. Testing of the technology has also raised concerns about its efficacy, according to the report.

Alexander Garza, DHS assistant secretary for health affairs, addressed such concerns in a statement posted on the department's website.

"Recent media reports have incorrectly claimed that Biowatch is prone to 'false positives' or 'false alarms' that create confusion among local officials and first responders. These claims are unsubstantiated," according to Garza, who also serves as DHS chief medical officer. "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.

"Out of these more than 7 million tests, Biowatch has reported 37 instances in which naturally occurring biological pathogens were detected from environmental sources," Garza added.  He noted that anthrax bacteria and a significant number of other disease agents that could be weaponized are also found in nature. "The detection of commonly occurring environmental agents is not a 'false positive,'" he stated.

"If Biowatch detects a potential threat, state and local officials as well as first responders have the ability to investigate the incident to the fullest and determine if there is a credible threat to the public," Garza stated.

He added: "These tools alone cannot and do not declare that a biological attack has occurred. Experts must interpret the data and quickly make tough, logical decisions about the reality of the threat. Biowatch is designed to provide the nation with the greatest lead time possible to respond to the potential release of a biological agent. The faster we detect an event, the more lives we can save by responding and delivering medical countermeasures. Looking forward, the scientists who operate the system will continue their work to improve Biowatch to keep the nation safe from any potential biological threats" (see GSN, July 12; U.S. Homeland Security Department release, July 12).

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