BioWatch 3 Ends, But Not ‘Lab-in-a-Box’ Goal

By Stew Magnuson
The BioWatch 3 program in April apparently joined the long list of Department of Homeland Security technology development programs that have been canceled or restructured because of cost overruns, or lack of progress.

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson called an end to the decade-long effort to create a “lab in a box” that would not only sniff out dangerous airborne pathogens and toxins, but do the processing on site and then transmit the results in real time to authorities.

However, a DHS official in a written statement told National Defense that the goal to create a more rapid and efficient system to detect the signs of a biological attack will continue.

The current BioWatch program, which relies on technicians to collect samples from boxes placed in secret locations in more than two dozen large cities, will continue, a statement from DHS spokesman S.Y. Lee said. 

“DHS announced the cancelation of the BioWatch acquisition of autonomous detection technology (also known as Gen-3). DHS remains committed to the BioWatch program and will ensure that current BioWatch operations continue as part of our layered approach to biodefense. This decision is in line with the department’s focus on efficiency, [and] ensuring that we continue to pursue cost-effective acquisition without compromising our security.”

The DHS official, who declined to be named, said: “The BioWatch program is the only federally-managed, locally-operated nationwide bio-surveillance system designed to detect select aerosolized biological agents and remains a critical part of our nation’s defense against biological threats.

“The development of the follow-on technology is being transferred to other DHS components for fiscal reasons. The department remains committed to the BioWatch program and the cancelation of this acquisition has no impact on current operations within the office of health affairs,” the official said.

The office of health affairs administers the current system and had spearheaded the effort to develop the next-generation sensors. BioWatch has been criticized by Congress, the Government Accountability Office and the press. It has had a high rate of false alarms, is labor intensive and slow. After technicians collect the samples, they must be taken to a laboratory and processed, which can take 36 to 48 hours.

The effort to create a system that can do it all automatically was once high profile enough to be mentioned in then-President George W. Bush’s 2003 state of the union speech. The effort came in the wake of the 2001 anthrax attacks.

The last GAO report on the program released in September 2012 said BioWatch 3’s schedule was slipping from deployment in 2016 to 2022, and lifecycle costs were ballooning from the 2009 estimates of $2.1 billion to $5.8 billion in 2011.

The lab-in-a-box goal will continue, said the official and an industry insider.

“Experts from the office of health affairs and the Science and Technology Directorate are exploring potential technologies for future development and deployment to enhance our biodefense capabilities,” the official said.

For Bill Caragol, chief executive officer of PositiveID Corp., the announcement was not a surprise.

“The action that came out of the secretary was expected,” he said. “It is our understanding from conversations from within the government and the commercial sector that it is DHS’ intention to move the next-generation BioWatch system to the Science and Technology Directorate and away from the office of health affairs.”

In order to make this move, the administration had to formally cancel the program of record, he said.

PositiveID, with funding from DHS, spent six years developing a system it calls M-BAND that has many of the characteristics DHS required, including onsite processing. It delivers results in a cycle beginning every six hours, and only has to be serviced every 30 days. It recently wrapped up operational tests.

Still, Caragol is not discouraged by the news.

There was a recent analysis of alternatives report on the program, which was not made public, but his sources say it recommended doing exactly what occurred in April, which is turning over Gen-3 to the Science and Technology Directorate, as well as the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, which are better equipped to handle developmental programs.

“We are fully supportive and endorse what has occurred,” Caragol said. 

The DHS official repeated Johnson’s statements that costs were a concern.

“The department recognizes the need for any new acquisition to be as cost-effective as possible, which requires in-depth analysis and tough decisions. Any acquisition will undergo intense inspection to ensure DHS continues to be mindful of our current fiscal environment and is efficient with our limited resources,” the official said.

It is not a large budgetary requirement to start performing operational tests on PositiveID’s, or any of its competitor’s lab-in-a-box products, Caragol noted.

“There are technologies out there that are a quantum leap ahead” of the current BioWatch program, he said. “Whether it is called Generation 4, or whatever is to come next, we think it is important to continue to think beyond where we are today.” 

Topics: Homeland Security, DHS Budget, DHS Policy, Science and Technology, Science and Engineering Technology, Homeland Security

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