Storm Brewing Over BioWatch3 Program (Updated)

By Stew Magnuson

Department of Homeland Security officials in July went to Capitol Hill to give House lawmakers a briefing and demonstration of the BioWatch program, which is designed to alert authorities to the release of potentially deadly biological weapons on U.S. soil.

Apparently, they didn’t like what they saw.

Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a terse statement released after the meeting that next-generation BioWatch3 has the potential to be the most expensive acquisition program in the history of the department.

But questions remained whether the technology will work, and Lungren has called for a hearing in September to gauge whether progress is being made. House committee members, along with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, have demanded a Government Accountability Office report, which will be released at the hearing.

The BioWatch program was designed to detect pathogens released in the air in major cities, and was born in the aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attacks.

The current monitors have high false alarm rates, and have inspired little confidence in public health officials. Furthermore, samples collected in scattered locations throughout the cities must be manually collected, and taken back to a laboratory to be examined. It is a laborious and time-consuming process that seemingly defeats the purpose of an “early warning” system.

The BioWatch3 program is expected to eliminate these flaws. The boxes that sniff out the air samples are intended to be an automated “lab in a box” that can detect the pathogens then wirelessly alert authorities that something nefarious has been detected.

An amendment in the 2011 Homeland Security authorization bill required that strict criteria be met before any new biodetection system goes forward. The amendment also provided guidelines for improving the functionality of the currently deployed system.

A 2009 National Academies report on the program said, “The proposed enhancements of the BioWatch system will be possible only if significant scientific and technical hurdles are overcome.”

All this depends on one of the detectors being in the right place at the right time, the academy report noted. It doesn’t work unless a terrorist happens to release the pathogen near one of the air sample collectors. Their exact locations and which cities they reside in are classified.

Last year, Lungren and Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., who chairs two Homeland Security subcommittees, sent DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano more than 25 questions “so that we could ensure the integrity of this extremely costly acquisition process. Frankly, DHS’ response was unsatisfactory, and significant questions remained,” Lungren said.

The hearing is currently scheduled for Sept. 20.

Correction: Previous version of the story stated that lawmakers received a briefing on BioWatch3. The briefing was on the current, rather than the 3rd-generation program.

Topics: Chem Bio Protection, Homeland Security, Science and Technology

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