Bioterrorism’s and BioWatch

Our tax dollars at work, well, possibly at work, if we could figure out what exactly is being done. Some backstory on the 2001 anthrax scare/hoax can be found here

The federal government has spent nearly $50 billion on programs to fight bioterrorism since 2001. Still, experience in New York City and elsewhere underscores the enduring difficulty of contending with this type of terror attack. Experts in the field say that the nation’s ability to detect biological weapons is still inadequate in most locales, as is its ability to distribute drugs to the population once the lethal agent is identified. Hospitals warn that the volume of casualties from an effective attack could simply overwhelm facilities.

“We’ve made very little progress in [any] of those very big areas,” says Dr. Tara O’Toole, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.


With easier access to fatal pathogens, it may be impossible to uncover preparations for an attack, leading government officials to focus more on lessening the impact of an attack than preventing one.

New York is using the next generation of sensors that the federal BioWatch program hopes to distribute nationwide by 2010. The city has been asking the federal government for more sensors. Most of the devices require up to 34 hours to detect a lethal bug, but about a half dozen new machines can detect an agent more quickly.

Yet New York remains at the leading edge. In most other cities, there was little federal guidance about which systems to buy, which led to a patchwork of often ineffective programs. The BioWatch system is active in more than 30 cities.

In New York, if a lethal agent is detected, the city plans to immediately distribute drugs to counter the bug. The federal government has worked to develop a national stockpile of drugs to deploy anywhere in the country, and biosecurity experts give the program high marks, saying that it can get the drugs to an affected region quickly. The problem, they say, is getting the medication out of the airport, where the federal government leaves it, and into communities.

If a biological attack were to happen tomorrow, said Lawrence O. Gostin, a bioterrorism expert at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown Universities, the best advice the government could give would be for people to stay where they are. He adds: “I have no idea how they would get to my suburban Maryland neighborhood and get me an antiviral or antibiotic.”

And biosecurity specialists lament that little progress has been made even on the most public of possible biological threats: countering an anthrax attack. Seven years after the nation contended with just such an attack, an $877 million effort to develop a new anthrax vaccine has failed; there’s no quick way to test patients for an anthrax infection; and efforts to develop a drug to counter anthrax’s lethal chemicals haven’t produced much.

[From Bioterrorism’s Threat Persists As Top Security Risk –] [non-WSJ subscribers use this link]

What are the 30 cities who are participants in this boondoggle, you might ask? Not mentioned in the article, but there’s a list at wikipedia. The budget is somewhere around $1,000,000 per city, per year, and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) wants to expand the program to include 120 cities.

BioWatch is a United States Federal Government program to detect the release of pathogens into the air as part of a terrorist attack on major American cities. Reportedly operating in Philadelphia, New York City, Washington, DC, San Diego, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis, Houston, Los Angeles and 21 other cities, the BioWatch program was created in 2001 in response to the increased threat of bioterrorism sparked by the 2001 anthrax attacks, and was announcing in President George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address of 2003. The program, described as “the nation’s first early warning network of sensors to detect biological attack” operates via a system of filters located within existing Environmental Protection Agency air filters which monitor the quality of the air. Results from these filters are analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who then pass any significant results to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


The BioWatch system has received a mix of responses since coming online, many that result in waste of resources and a lowering public confidence in the system. A Congressional report in 2003 recorded that there was concern that the BioWatch filters would fail to detect indoor or underground releases, and also that the existence of BioWatch filters in some cities would direct terrorists to attack other cities without such protection. The report also highlighted the risk of the filters themselves being detected and destroyed. The report also states that, as EPA filters are located based on different policies than those which would provide optimum locations for counter-bioterrorism sensors, the BioWatch filters may not be optimally located. Furthermore, the BioWatch system may miss releases that take place within the gaps in coverage. The House of Representatives also concluded that models used to predict the spread of an infectious agent after release and detection may be inaccurate.

The Congressional Report also raises concerns as to whether BioWatch can detect pathogens in large, polluted cities, as well as issues relating to the BioWatch filter reporting harmful pathogens which are actually within safe background levels, and thus would throw up more positive hits than actual investigation warrants. There are also concerns that the BioWatch filters kill whatever pathogen has set them off, thus removing the possibility of further tests being undertaken.[8] Finally, concerns were raised in the Congressional Report regarding the sensitivity of the filters, and the fact that each filter would be exposed to different environmental conditions and thus a standardized detection rate would be near impossible to achieve. The complicated response that would be required should the BioWatch filter detect a pathogen would also be difficult to implement and put strain on local health authorities.

A probable big waste of money, in other words, protecting nobody in particular, with the exception of some defense contractors and other DHS friends and cronies. BioWatch does contribute to the climate of fear and apprehension, the so-called terrorism theatre.

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