By Steven Bucci, Ph.D.
July 10, 2012
In 2001, just one week after 9/11, letters laced with anthrax were found in the U.S. mail system addressed to offices on Capitol Hill and major media outlets. In response, the newly formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) deployed the BioWatch program, which seeks to detect the release of dangerous pathogens into the air, providing early warning to government and public health officials on the threat of a biological attack.
In the nearly 10 years since BioWatch’s deployment, however, perceived false alarms and program shortfalls have led some to question continued investments in the next generation of the program. While the continued threat of bioterrorism—and even the recent H1N1 outbreaks—prove enough of a threat to justify further spending, in moving forward, DHS should better address these continued challenges.
Current BioWatch Limitations
Deployed in more than 30 metropolitan areas, BioWatch uses air sampling equipment and program stations to collect samples over a 24-hour collection period. The samples are then taken to a lab for analysis in hopes of early detection of aerosolized pathogens. While BioWatch has generated dozens of BioWatch Actionable Results, none has been connected with evidence of bioterrorism or cases of human illness.
BioWatch is intended to provide rapid and early warning of a biological threat, but the current process of removing, transporting, and analyzing the samples detracts greatly from the early detection desires of DHS Office of Health Affairs. One of the main reasons for this is the 24-hour collection period.
Current manpower and the need to remotely test the samples does not allow for a shorter collection period. The complete process, therefore, can take anywhere between 10 and 36 hours, allowing for potential widespread of a pathogen before its detection while also inhibiting situational awareness and efforts at interdiction.