A government biosecurity expert last week briefed lawmakers on the Department of Homeland Security's next-generation "lab-in-a-box" to detect, to identify, and to aid response to a biological terrorism attack.
Dr. Tara O'Toole, undersecretary at DHS Directorate of Science and Technology (S&T), described how the department has and will continue to leverage new technology to refine and improve its BioWatch program before a House subcommittee.
The program began in 2003 in response to the anthrax mailings of 2001. DHS initially deployed air samplers in a number of unspecified metropolitan areas to detect biological pathogens, including anthrax, smallpox, plague, and tularemia, according to a Federation of American Scientists' report from 2003.The number of urban areas covered now exceeds 30 and DHS wants to expand the program to approximately 20 more urban areas.
O'Toole testified that S&T has developed a possible next-generation detector to improve the BioWatch program that's currently being tested by the DHS Office of Health Affairs (OHA), which is responsible for the day-to-day management of the program. Currently, filters from the air samplers must be collected every 24 hours. The filters are then analyzed for pathogens at a local laboratory. This process, however, takes considerable time.
"With this sampler technology and deployment (known as Generation 2), as much as 36 hours may elapse between the collection of genetic material of interest and the availability of essential laboratory test results showing its presence," Dr. Bernard D. Goldstein, a University of Pittsburgh professor and chair of the Committee on Effectiveness of National Biosurveillance Systems, told the subcommittee. (The committee recently released a public summary of a report on BioWatch that it delivered to Congress.)
When a pathogen is detected, a BioWatch Actionable Result (BAR) is created. The laboratory then notifies local public health officials and they determine how to respond. A BAR, however, does not mean a bioterrorism release has occurred. O'Toole testified that numerous BARs have occurred since 2003 and have been deemed benign.
"In some BAR cases, BioWatch samples contained genetic material that was highly similar to that found in BioWatch target organisms, but which turned out to be from microbes that are present in the ambient environment but do not represent threats to human health."
Generation 3 technology, says O'Toole, will improve the program by creating a lab-in-a-box.
"Gen 3 Bio Watch would be far more technologically sophisticated than the current BioWatch sensors," she told lawmakers, "with the ability to automatically collect outdoor air samples, perform molecular analysis of the samples and report the results electronically to provide near-real time reporting."
Pathogen detection rates could be reduced to 4 hours, O'Toole said.
Goldstein and his committee, however, remain skeptical of this next-generation technology. "Our review of the plans that DHS had developed for testing and evaluation for Generation 3 (as presented to us in spring 2009) revealed that technology goals for Generation 3 will be very difficult to achieve."
And even if Gen 3 detectors work as planned, they are only one layer to accurately identifying and aiding a response to a bioterrorism attack. One reason for this is logistics. The attack must occur in an area where the detectors are already deployed. Goldstein told lawmakers that while BioWatch could potentially alert local, state, and federal stakeholders of a release in a timely manner, he places more confidence in public and private health care systems to do biosurveillance properly through information sharing.
"It is broader and more flexible than BioWatch, permitting detection of a wider range of infectious diseases and diseases resulting from source of exposure that BioWatch is not designed or deployed to detect," he said. Another hurdle Goldstein said DHS must confront is BioWatch's ability to not only identify threats but coordinate and communicate the technology's findings with state and local public health decision makers and first responders.
Testing on Gen 3 technologies will proceed as planned. Dr. Alex Garza, assistant secretary for health affairs and chief medical officer at OHA, testified that the agency has agreed to test bioterrorism detection systems from two vendors. If either or both vendors pass the initial testing, DHS will begin a " four-city operational testing phase...in a variety of outdoor and indoor environments to ensure the systems operate properly before committing the government to a large-scale buy."
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