Magazine article National Defense

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

Magazine article National Defense

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

Article excerpt

* 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 Bio-Watch3 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. …

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