The nearly two-decade old BioWatch biological threat detection and warning system is a failure and various attempts to replace it, including the new Biodefense in the 21st Century (BD21) effort, have failed or are failing as well, so the U.S. government needs to develop a new approach to acquire and deploy technology that could rapidly detect a biological attack in the nation’s urban areas to enable a quick response, says a new report from a bipartisan commission.
The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, which in 2015 recommended that BioWatch be canned, says the program has been inconsistent in showing its effectiveness, is targeted against too few threats with “questionable accuracy” and far too slow, 36 hours, so that public health officials would be more likely to recognize a health crisis stemming from a biological event due to people arriving at hospitals for treatment.
The commission’s report, Saving Sisyphus: Advanced Biodetection for the 21st Century, also criticizes the Department of Homeland Security’s current effort to replace BioWatch with advanced technology to rapidly detect and warn of biological events, and adds there are other current capabilities that should be pursued.
Much of the technology in BD21 is unproven and the technology that is currently planned to confirm an event, polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, is the same used for BioWatch and would not allow for rapid threat detection, the report says. It also says that the planned anomaly detection algorithm for BD21 will likely register one false alarm at each location every day, similar to the daily retrieval of sample filters from the current BioWatch detectors placed around cities, requiring a significant outlay of resources that may not be available.
“Early efforts underscore the need to take a different direction to acquire needed biodetection technology,” the report says. “Better technology and approaches to biodetection exist.”
The report begins with a chilling future scenario where the World Cup in 2026 is hosted in North American cities and anthrax attacks are slowly recognized in a number of U.S. cities that have hosted matches due to failures of the BD21 technology and shortcomings in BioWatch. Two weeks after the first attacks at a stadium in Los Angeles, officials there still can’t characterize the attack due to a lack of useful data and deaths across the use have topped 46,000.
For a new path forward, the commission recommends a number of steps, including Congress directing DHS to use current intelligence about the biothreat use this to redefine the mission of BioWatch and how the system’s detectors will operate, develop new requirements for national biodetection with stakeholders at all levels of government, develop new requirements for biodetection technologies and how results will be shared with states and localities, and within six months acquire three or more technologies that can meet BioWatch mission requirements for testing within a year. And within 18 months, it wants to replace legacy BioWatch equipment and BD21 technologies being evaluated.
The commission also calls for the DHS Science and Technology Directorate to begin a multi-year research and development program that reaches out to the public and private sectors for development of a system that meets current and future biodetection requirements.
Congress should also amend existing legislation requiring DHS to work with its federal partners at Health and Human Services, the Defense Department and NASA to develop a long-term R&D plan for BioWatch, require the National Academies of Sciences to routinely evaluate the DHS biodetection system for gaps and shortcomings, and within a year, deploy replacement technology that has passed a final evaluation with all stakeholders, the report says.
Deployment of BioWatch followed a series of attacks in 2001 conducted by mailing anthrax to targets throughout the U.S. The intelligence community assesses that U.S. adversaries and terrorist organizations are pursing biological weapons for use “to gain asymmetric advantage over the United States,” the commission says.