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Inaccurate Readings Plague U.S. Bioagent Detection Program

Biologist Crystal Jaing works in 2011 at a laboratory that is part of the U.S. Biowatch disease agent detection program. The Biowatch system has given numerous inaccurate readings in cities across the country, and evaluations have judged the system to be an undependable advance indicator of a real biological strike (AP Photo/Ben Margot). Biologist Crystal Jaing works in 2011 at a laboratory that is part of the U.S. Biowatch disease agent detection program. The Biowatch system has given numerous inaccurate readings in cities across the country, and evaluations have judged the system to be an undependable advance indicator of a real biological strike (AP Photo/Ben Margot).

A national network of biological agent sensors has given more than 50 inaccurate warnings of potential biological-weapon strikes, while federal findings and electronic simulations have judged the system to be unreliable in monitoring for an actual offensive, the Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday (see GSN, June 18).

The United States has deployed Biowatch scanners on rooftops and near the ground in more than 30 urban areas since 2003, when then-President George W. Bush outlined plans for the system in his State of the Union remarks.

Government data indicates that the network -- built to identify disease agents including anthrax, plague, smallpox and tularemia -- generated 56 erroneous positive findings for biological threats prior to 2009. Officials publicized few of the problematic occurrences, and additional comparable incidents have arisen in more recent years, according to the Times.

Faulty notifications occurred in jurisdictions including Detroit, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area and St. Louis. Such readings forced authorities to consider altering plans for the 2008 Democratic National Convention, the 2004 and 2008 Super Bowls and certain Major League Baseball postseason games in 2006, as well as restricting access to the National Mall in 2005.

The equipment apparently generates unfounded notifications because it cannot tell the difference between potentially deadly biological materials and similar organisms posing less danger, according to specialists with knowledge of the system. The government has yet to settle on a reason for the readings.

In an actual biological-weapon strike, the quantity of hazardous agents in a particular area would likely be insufficiently high for the system to spot, according to experts informed of trials involving electronic simulations and real equipment. Still, such organisms could spread to thousands of victims, they said.

Wind would spread even a large emission of biological warfare material in an uncertain manner, necessitating the installation of scanners in massive quantities to provide a dependable notification capability for a location, according to the specialists.

State and jurisdictional authorities have expressed a lack of trust in the Biowatch network, and have never dispersed countermeasures or forced people to vacate an area based on information from the system, the Times reported. Former U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Reeves, who supervised installation of the first Biowatch equipment, has also deemed the scheme to be unfeasible.

"I can't find anyone in my peer group who believes in Biowatch," said Ned Calonge, who served as the Colorado Public Health and Environment Department's head medical officer from 2002 until 2010. "The only times it goes off, it's wrong. I just think it's a colossal waste of money. It's a stupid program."

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 in comments quoted by participants of a November meeting.

Obama officials are mulling whether to hire a firm to prepare a new line of Biowatch scanner technology. The planned system is expected to require $3.1 billion to acquire and run over the coming half-decade; the existing network has absorbed $1 billion in funding to date.

Speaking to lawmakers, Homeland Security Department chief medical officer Alexander Garza in March said the planned equipment "is imperative to saving thousands of lives."

Still, trials to date have placed the new technology's accuracy in doubt. Specialists said an experimental sensor generated a number of inaccurate disease notifications in New York's subway network in 2007 and 2008. Another test model failed to run autonomously for a period exceeding seven days, the Times reported.

In addition, hundreds of thousands of organisms per cubic meter are necessary to prompt a positive finding from the gear, according to trials carried out at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah and at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state. Experts said such levels are far in excess of those necessary to produce illness and fatalities.

The "failures were so significant" that the department had recommended "major engineering modifications" to the technology by Northrop Grumman, the top firm vying to produce the equipment in bulk, according to an undisclosed DHS document from January of this year.

The department "takes all precautions necessary to minimize the occurrence of both false positive and false negative results," and "rigorous testing and evaluation" would inform its determinations on procuring the new system, spokesman Peter Boogaard said.

Certain trial findings have resulted in a bid to refine the new equipment's responsiveness and general efficacy, Northrop Grumman sources said.

"We had an issue that affected the consistency of the performance of the system," Northrop Grumman project head Dave Tilles said. "We resolved it. We fixed it. ... We feel like we're ready for the next phase of the program" (David Willman, Los Angeles Times, July 7).

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GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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