Next-Generation Bio-Surveillance Program’s Costs Questioned; Future Remains Murky

By Steff Thomas

A plan to field “laboratories in a box” in U.S. cities that can sniff the air for signs of a biological weapon attack have been put on hold, and a Department of Homeland Security official said he has no idea when it will get underway again.

DHS called a halt to the troubled BioWatch3 program in September 2012 after efforts to field a system that could sharply reduce the amount of time needed to notify public health officials of a possible bio-attack came to naught.

The current BioWatch program, which is fielded in 34 cities and during special events, was created in 2003 to serve as an early-warning system in the event of a large-scale bioterrorism attack. The sniffers take air samples that must be manually collected by technicians and brought back to labs where they look for signs of pathogens such as botulism and anthrax. This labor-intensive, costly process takes some 12 to 36 hours to complete.

The BioWatch3 program was intended to automatically search for signs of a biological attack on site in a box containing the collection devices and the processors. The goal was to shorten the time it took to alert authorities to four to six hours. It would also reduce the cost of operations over time while providing continuous collection and analysis capability.

The first-generation program costs nearly $85 million to run per year with more than $1 billion having already been spent since the program was launched. The BioWatch3 program was estimated to cost an additional $5.8 billion over a 20-year life span.

BioWatch Program Manager Michael Walter told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations that DHS is working on an analysis of alternatives report to be completed this fall. The National Academies of Science is also working on a study to guide the department on how to create valid means to test next-generation equipment. That is not due until late 2014.

“We cannot afford another DHS boondoggle. This costly approach is unbalanced and misdirected,” said subcommittee Chairman Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa.

“After 10 years of operation, we don’t still know if the current BioWatch technology can detect an aerosolized bioterrorism agent in a real-world environment,” he added.

A Government Accountability Office report stated that DHS went through the BioWatch3 acquisition process “without fully developing critical knowledge that would help ensure sound investment, decision-making, pursuit of optimal solutions and reliable performance costs.” 

Walter, summing up the GAO report, said: “While we followed the acquisition processes that were in place at the time, it’s a big program, and we would probably want to be careful and go back and dot the I’s and cross the T’s.”

Before the BioWatch3 program can proceed, Congress has mandated that the secretary of homeland security must certify that the technology is proven effective. That requirement is similar to the now canceled advanced spectroscopic portal program, which sought to field a next-generation sensor that could detect nuclear weapons and materials in shipping containers. No secretary was ever willing to sign off on that program.

With nearly $300 million having already been spent on failed BioWatch technologies, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., questioned if the cost was worthwhile. “If we’ve learned anything since September 11, let’s just stop throwing money around,” she said. “Let’s make sure that we target it to programs that work.”

The program’s difficulties have led skeptics to state that BioWatch was launched prematurely. In the 2003 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush announced the creation of the program. It was launched just months after the announcement was made, said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

“We have since learned that BioWatch, much like other post-September 11 programs, was implemented too hastily and without appropriate long-term planning,” Waxman said.

Since the inception of the program, there have been 149 biological agents detected, but none were threats to public health, Murphy said.

Walter said the program detects agents that occur naturally in the environment. “Most of them out there are endemic, and it stands to reason that we will occasionally detect one or two of them,” he said.

Photo Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Topics: Chem Bio Protection, Health Affairs, Homeland Security, Disaster Response, Science and Technology

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