BiosecurityExamining the Practically Nonfunctional Federal Biowatch Program

Published 28 October 2021

The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense’s new report addresses inadequacies of BioWatch, the DHS environmental biodetection program. The report, released on the 20th anniversary of the anthrax attacks, shows that BioWatch system remains ineffective after nearly two decades of operation.

The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense said it will resume its in-person meetings on Tuesday, 2 November, with Saving Sisyphus: Course Corrections for National Biodetection. In its 2015 National Blueprint for Biodefense, the Commission addressed inadequacies of BioWatch, the Department of Homeland Security environmental biodetection program. A new Commission report released on the 20th anniversary of the anthrax attacks shows that BioWatch system remains ineffective after nearly two decades of operation.

“The system does not effectively detect pathogens, and even if it did, time to confirm results is too slow for anyone to respond effectively to an actual biological attack,” said Commission Co-Chair, former Senator Joe Lieberman. “If the Department of Homeland Security continues to spend taxpayer money on next generation biodetection systems, it needs to reassess current efforts. I hope DHS will be watching, because this upcoming public meeting will help us and them do just that.”

Current BioWatch technology – a system of federally developed and supported detectors placed in large cities across the nation that are supposed to quickly identify a biological agent in the air – still performs poorly and is far from the deterrence mechanism it was originally intended to be. BioWatch detectors, when they work, only provide useful data hours or days after an event. DHS is trying to replace this decades-old system, but BD21, the DHS acquisition program to identify and acquire new biodetection technology, has its own difficulties. BioWatch was supposed to limp along until 2025 in hopes that BD21 would be able to acquire usable new technology and DHS could procure it, despite little evidence that the BD21 approach to acquisition would be successful. The Department of Homeland Security paused BD21 efforts two days after the Commission released its report on BioWatch, Saving Sisyphus: Advanced Biodetection for the 21st Century.

“Nation-states such as China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia have invested and continue to invest heavily in advancing biotechnology, much of which is dual-use, which could generate large quantities of biological agents and weapons and result in horrific consequences,” said Commission Co-Chair and first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. “Terrorist organizations also want the asymmetric advantages that bioterrorism affords them and they continue to place materials online to show their members how to conduct attacks with anthrax, botulism, and other biological agents. Congress cannot continue to invest $80 million a year in a program that cannot demonstrate value.”

Among those scheduled to speak at the meeting are Beth Maldin Morgenthau, Deputy Commissioner, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; Anup Singh, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; and Chuck Call, President and Chief Executive Officer, BioFlyte, Inc.

The meeting will begin at 10:00 am Eastern at Hudson Institute, 1201 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC. The Commission will also live-stream the meeting. To register, please visit the Commission’s events page.