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House panel questions value of biosurveillance program

At a cost of $85 million a year, BioWatch is in use in 34 of the largest U.S. metropolitan cities. Since launching in 2003, the program has cost $1 billion. 

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The Los Angeles Times reported in 2012 that a CDC official told White House aides that they would not rush medications to the site of an attack detected by BioWatch unless it was followed up with more sampling.  

The House Energy and Commerce Committee launched an investigation into BioWatch last summer, requesting the federal government confirm multiple reports that BioWatch was operating with defective technology and had a history of triggering false alarms. 

DHS denied the accuracy of these reports and stated that the BioWatch system has never given a false positive. 

Michael Walter of DHS told members of the subcommittee that the BioWatch system was in fact effective, and that allegations over “false positives” came from a misunderstanding of the terminology. 

When a city’s BioWatch system detects the DNA of a select agent, the lead public official of that city declares a “BioWatch Actionable Result,” or BAR. After the BAR is declared, further testing is done to see if BioWatch actually detected a lethal pathogen, or just bacteria with similar DNA. 

“To be clear, a BAR does not mean a terrorist attack has occurred, a viable agent has been released, or that people have been exposed. Additional analysis is needed to determine if a release has occurred and if there is a risk to public health,” Walter said. 

BioWatch has sent out 149 BARS since its creation, with no actual attacks detected.

The DHS is requesting further funding from Congress to upgrade the BioWatch system for a faster response time. 

In each city where it is deployed, BioWatch uses a collection of outdoor and indoor aerosol collectors that take regular air samples. The samples are then collected by public health officials for further testing in labs. The total process can take up to a few days. 

The DHS was denied $40 million to invest in a new “lab in a box” technology called Generation 3, which would be able to produce results in a few hours. 

Lawmakers questioned whether investing in the technology would be worth the cost. 

The DHS has experimented with upgrading the BioWatch technology in the past, but stopped after the results were ineffective. The failed testing efforts cost the agency a total of $300 million. The Government Accountability Office predicted that upgrading BioWatch to the Generation 3 technology would cost the DHS $5.8 billion over a decade. 

Both Democratic and GOP lawmakers in the committee questioned the need for the Generation 3 technology, citing recent threat assessments by the DHS that showed a biological attack to be less likely now than it was in earlier years. 

Rep. Diane DeGette (D-Colo.) asked if the system was worth the cost, given that it had not detected an actual terrorist attack in the decade of its operation. 

Rep. Steven Scalise (R-La.) pointed out that the anthrax attacks were a much smaller operation than the large-scale attacks that BioWatch was created to detect. 

Murphy said while the threat of bioterrorism was still a concern, it was more likely that the attacks would be smaller, and unable to be detected by BioWatch. 

Murphy said while the DHS would be expected to pursue Generation 3 if officials are able to prove that it was effective, the higher costs were a considerable concern. Lawmakers also inquired about recent cuts in the public health workforce that could further complicate matters. 

“We cannot afford another DHS boondoggle. This costly approach is unbalanced and misdirected. It makes no sense to expand outdoor monitoring for a less likely large-scale attack, while not addressing the declining number of public health responders who are needed in any kind of attack. If public health authorities lack the capability to respond, BioWatch will not produce a benefit,” Murphy said.