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U.S. Pushes Back Acquisition of Next-Generation Bioagent Sensors

Staffers in 2011 work in a mobile laboratory that is part of the U.S. Homeland Security Department's Biowatch biological agent detection program. The department is pushing back acquisition of next-generation technology for the initiative (AP Photo/Ben Margot). Staffers in 2011 work in a mobile laboratory that is part of the U.S. Homeland Security Department's Biowatch biological agent detection program. The department is pushing back acquisition of next-generation technology for the initiative (AP Photo/Ben Margot).

The Obama administration in August indicated it would delay a scheduled acquisition of components for carrying out what government insiders have described as a potentially critical update to a federal program for detecting a biological weapons attack, the Los Angeles Times reported on Friday.

The Homeland Security Department now intends to seek completed bids for a third generation of Biowatch detectors in a period roughly spanning the last three months of 2012, the office said in a statement that offered no reasoning for the altered timing. A 2011 DHS announcement had said a projected $3.1 billion deal for the Generation 3 sensors was scheduled for completion by the middle of last May.

Democratic and Republican legislators have raised sharp concerns over the Biowatch initiative with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and her staff. A recent Los Angeles Times report enumerated a number of technical problems with the program, which has so far spent approximately $1 billion to deploy and maintain disease agent sensors in more than 30 cities. Biowatch detectors from 2003 through 2008 raised no fewer than 56 false alerts of a potential bioterrorism attack, according to the newspaper.

The reported difficulties were focuses in multiple communications sent to Napolitano by House Homeland Security Committee Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and the House Energy and Commerce Committee's top GOP members, who sought disclosure of records on the scanners.

The Generation 3 equipment is intended to autonomously analyze air samples and digitally deliver findings -- eliminating the need to physically remove filters for assessment at a scientific facility -- and to expand the program to roughly 20 additional urban areas. The new sensors would likely be "four times cheaper to operate" than their predecessors, according to a 2007 statement to House legislators by then-Homeland Security Undersecretary Jay Cohen.

The scheduled update is "imperative to saving thousands of lives," Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Alexander Garza added in March.

Still, the developmental gear might not be fully dependable, according to trials conducted both in confined settings and open environments.

The scheduled Biowatch Generation 3 effort is "one of the most costly at the Department of Homeland Security," House Homeland Security emergency preparedness subcommittee Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said on Friday in prepared comments. "We must ensure that the development and procurement of the next generation of Biowatch is based on sound science and that we are getting an appropriate return on our investment."

The preparedness subcommittee and another panel are due in a Thursday hearing to address the program as well as a new General Accountability Office analysis of the Generation 3 initiative.

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