Despite the recent cancellation of an advanced technology program to automate the collection and analysis of potential biological threats in the nation’s major cities, the bio-terror threat is real and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) remains committed to the current BioWatch program while exploring alternatives for improvement, according to department officials.

The DHS Office of Health Affairs (OHA) and the Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate are jointly developing requirements for a systems approach to next-generation bio-detection, Kathryn Brinsfield, acting assistant secretary of OHA, and Reginald Brothers, under secretary of S&T, said in their joint prepared statement for a House panel.

OHA and S&T are “now completing a plan to test both currently available technologies and solutions, and to look at indoor and outdoor applications,” Brinsfield told the House Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee.

In late April Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson cancelled the Gen-3 next-generation program that was being developed and tested under the BioWatch program, which currently consists of aerosol sample collectors distributed in various locations in more than 30 major urban areas. The current system, referred to as Gen-2, is manually intensive in that it requires samples to be retrieved on a daily basis and then taken to a laboratory for analysis, a process that creates a 12 hour to 36 hour lag from the time a biological agent is released until detection.

The goal of the Gen-3 program had been to essentially create a laboratory-in-a-box so that the collection and analysis could be done automatically several times a day and produce a detection result and alert within four to six hours of the release of an agent, enabling local health authorities to respond more quickly to a bio-threat.

Chris Cummiskey, the acting under secretary for the DHS Management Directorate, told the panel that he wants “to reaffirm the secretary’s commitment to Gen-2 as the department’s program of record for aerosolized biological threat detection.” Cummiskey, who convened the Acquisition Review Board meeting in April that oversaw the cancellation of the Gen-3 program, said that he directed S&T and the BioWatch program office “to improve our biodetection capability by exploring the development and maturation of an effective and affordable automated aerosol biodetection system.”

Brinsfield said that OHA recommended that the Gen-3 program be cancelled after it its assessment of an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) performed by the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) determined that there would not be “an overwhelming benefit to justify the cost of a full technology switch, including a one-for-one replacement and expanded coverage to new jurisdictions.” She pointed out that OHA’s assessment of the AoA “suggested that an autonomous detection capability would be a valuable addition to current BioWatch operations in certain circumstances.”

Brothers, who became head of the S&T office about six weeks ago, said that OHA and his office will be examining making incremental improvements to the Gen-2 system in the near-term while looking at long-term solutions for a “distributed, networked sensor agnostic architecture with the potential capability well beyond what the department initially envisioned with the Gen-3 acquisition.”

The House Appropriations Committee this month approved its version of the FY ’15 Homeland Security spending bill that recommends $86.9 million for BioWatch, $2.2 million above the request, for continuing operations and to begin replacing aging equipment so that the current capabilities can be maintained. A draft report accompanying the spending bill says that the current system, which was deployed more than 10 years ago, is nearing the end of its estimated life-cycle and will require “recapitalization or replacement to prevent system failures.”

The appropriators say they support efforts for the next-generation bio-detection capabilities and want DHS to brief them on plans to upgrade current systems and potential technologies that can be developed and deployed later.

S&T is also looking at creating an Apex program called Beyond BioWatch that would include a partnership with OHA and other “national bio-defense stakeholders to work toward an implementation of an integrated national systems approach to bio-detection.” Apex programs are rare and are requested by DHS components to address high-priority problems relatively quickly.

Brinsfield and Brothers stated that biological threats such as bio-terrorism, pandemics, and plant and animal diseases remain homeland security risks. Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), chairman of the subcommittee, said that the bio-terror threat is “real,” based on a hearing her panel held in February and a subsequent classified briefing. She added that the IDA says the threat hasn’t changed since 2001.

In its AoA, IDA identified about 500 biosurveillance activities “that are either readily deployable or in development,” Deena Disraelly, a research staffer with IDA, told the subcommittee. The report identified four alternative biosurveillance candidates including autonomous detection (similar to Gen-3); clinical diagnosis/diagnostics with mandatory Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting; environmental collection with manual sample retrieval with analytical laboratory support (similar to current Gen-2 system and procedures); and Sentinel population using personal air samplers on a limited population such as law enforcement officers for detection and or identification of biological agents with subsequent laboratory analysis.

Disraelly stated that in the attack scenarios modeled in the AoA the four alternatives all demonstrated the ability to operate in different environments and detect the five BioWatch threshold agents or more. She also said that the autonomous identification “was consistently the quickest alternative to identify any” of the agents at six hours, followed by the sentinel population alternative (generally at 18 hours), environmental collection (at 34 hours), and clinical diagnosis/diagnostics (at four to 13 days, depending on the agent.).”

However, when it came to probability of detection, clinical diagnosis and diagnostics ranks the highest for both indoor and outdoor activities with 100 percent detection of all agents, Disraelly stated. The AoA showed that environmental collection and the sentinel population alternatives are close to 99 percent for detecting agents indoor depending on the scenario.

However, in outdoor environments, the probability of detection for both environmental collection and sentinel population alternatives is under 50 percent while autonomous identification is less than 25 percent, she says.

Disraelly also said that when attacks are detected, autonomous identification and sentinel population alternatives lead to the fewest casualties followed by environmental collection, and clinical diagnosis and diagnostics. She noted that the differences between the alternatives depend on the agent used in the attack.

The AoA also performed 20-year life-cycle cost estimates of each alternative, with the sentinel population being the most expensive at $16.4 billion followed by autonomous identification at $4.2 billion and environmental collection at $3.7 billion, Disraelly says. Clinical diagnosis and diagnostics, “which assumes a pre-existing public health infrastructure” and only the costs of testing for a small number of patients has a life-cycle cost of about $43 million, making it the cheapest alternative by far, she says.