BiowatchTechnology used in BioWatch could not detect pathogens, issued false alarms

Published 29 October 2012

The BioWatch program was created to detect the release of pathogens in the air as part of a terrorist attack, but scientists say that the program is unable to detect lethal germs because the system uses defective components; these components often set off false alarms; for example, BioWatch sensors issued fifty alarms between 2003 and 2008, but scientists and security authorities never had enough confidence in the BioWatch system to evacuate an area or take other emergency steps

The BioWatch program was created to detect the release of pathogens in the air as part of a terrorist attack, but scientists say that the program is unable to detect lethal germs because the system uses defective components. These components often set off false alarms. 

There were many such false alarms, including fifty between 2003 and 2008. Scientists and security authorities never had enough confidence in the BioWatch system to evacuate an area or take other emergency steps.

The Los Angeles Times reports that DHS has started an internal investigation, and Republicans lawmakers have asked DHS secretary Janet Napolitano for documents on BioWatch and an explanation about the failures of the systemto why the system failed.

Representative Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), the House Committee on Homeland Security’s ranking Democrat, agrees. “Eleven years and $800 million dollars later, we still do not have an early warning system that can quickly and efficiently detect the release of a harmful biological or chemical compound in our major cities and it is time to reconsider the likelihood of the risk and adjust our priorities,” Thompson told the Homeland Security Newswire.

“The technological component of this program, which originally began in 2003, has suffered from poor planning, poor execution and poor performance throughout its life cycle.”

Air samples in more than thirty cities around the country are taken in public places such as train stations, libraries, and museums. The samples are taken to local labs and technicians extract genetic material from the filters and use kits to release fluorescent dyes into the material. The dyes are supposed to light up if a pathogen targeted by BioWatch is present.

Originally, lab technicians used separate kits to detect different germs, but in 2007 DHS equipped labs with new kits intended to screen for multiple pathogens at the same time. The goal was to enable faster detection of a pathogen and organize a quicker response.

The Times notes that the new components triggered false alarms, and eventually DHS ordered testing of the new equipment; the test revealed that the new kits are unsuitable for BioWatch. The new equipment was replaced in 2009 and the older models were reinstalled.

According to scientists, the defective kits were created by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and were built by a private company to DHS’s specifications.

DHS has been quiet on the matter since the Times broke the story. Peter Boogaard, a DHS spokesman, declined to comment on the matter, and Jeffery Stiefel, the department official responsible for installing the ill-fated kits, said he was not authorized to comment. The Times reports that he was transferred to a position with no responsibility for BioWatch.

Earlier this year, the Times reported that at the root of the problem was the inability of BioWatch to distinguish between dangerous and benign organisms. Richard Meyer, a microbiologist who assisted in the design of the defective kits, defended the design. According to Meyer, the original kits were not up to date.  “They were past their life cycle and in constant need of repair,” Meyer told the Times. Data collected by Lawrence Livermore scientists “supported the use of the [new] technology,” he said

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