THE MAGAZINE

The State of Bioterrorism Surveillance

By Lilly Chapa

The high number of BARs might lead decision makers into what Kellermann calls the car alarm mind-set: “If you live in a neighborhood where a car alarm goes off every night, after two to three weeks, you just ignore it.”
But unnecessary alarms are only one problem.

Ongoing Efforts

Efforts have been underway for nine years to develop a way to automate the sample analysis—to have the analysis conducted within the same device that collects the sample—a “lab-in-a-box” approach that would not require human interaction, saving staff time and yielding results in six hours, versus the current 24 hours that it takes to get results from the lab. But as discussed in a June House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, DHS officials have spent more than $300 million on various generations of this technology without success, including BioWatch Gen-2.5, which was deployed for two years until it was deemed ineffective, and Gen-3, which also was deemed to have failed in a first round of testing. But Brian Beaulac of Boeing, which works on Gen-3 installations for DHS, asserts that the technology and chemistry behind Gen-3 does work and that the system simply needs adjustments. BioWatch program manager Dr. Michael Walter made similar assertions at the congressional hearing. The DHS is expected to release a progress report on the new technology this fall.

After various investigations on BioWatch, including a 2011 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report and a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times, legislators took notice of the program’s troubles. In 2012, the Senate and House Appropriation Committees removed the $40 million requested by DHS for Gen-3 and ruled that the experimental program may not receive further funding until the DHS certifies that the science involved in Gen-3 is proven. Both the House and the Senate committees have been looking into the program, as has the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The aforementioned false alarm and technology issues were among the findings of these investigations. Another concern was the lack of coordination among all the players. “The BioWatch program appears to lack necessary coordination, communication, and collaboration among the several communicators at federal, state, and local levels that must be fully engaged for a functional system,” the NAS report states.

There has been a communication gap between the DHS and local public health officials since the beginning of BioWatch: the DHS has withheld information from local officials about the locations of BioWatch sensors in their own jurisdictions, and for years some local officials were unclear on the exact criteria of a BAR or how to respond. The lack of communication evolved into distrust between the two groups and weakened BAR response capabilities, the NAS report said.
 

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