An early warning program designed to alert local and national authorities of biological weapons attack doesn’t provide nationwide coverage, is limited in the threats it can detect, and no longer performs routine large-scale exercises where the program is deployed, leaving the U.S. less able to detect and respond to a bio-terrorism attack, says a new report by a government watchdog.
The report also says that that in almost every area where the BioWatch equipment is deployed, that is 34 of 35 jurisdictions, it didn’t always work due to air sampling units being unplugged, stolen or tampered with.
BioWatch was established in 2003 within the Department of Homeland Security following a series of anthrax attacks that killed five people and sickened more than a dozen in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The current program involves the deployment of air sample collectors in 35 jurisdictions in 22 states to filter for a number of biological agents.
With BioWatch equipment installed in locations in 44 percent of U.S. states in support of state and local public health and emergency management, the program lacks nationwide coverage, the DHS Office of Inspector General says in its March 2 report, Biological Threat Detection and Response Challenges Remain for BioWatch (OIG-21-22).
“This occurred because BioWatch has not reassessed its strategic posture to have nationwide coverage since its inception in 2003,” the 18-page report says. The report, which contains redactions, was released on March 4.
The DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office, which oversees BioWatch, in a response included in the IG report that Los Alamos National Laboratory, which conducted the original risk assessment in 2003, is conducting a new assessment that is expected to be finished this September.
The BioWatch system monitors and detects six of 14 aerosolized biological agents that are threats to public health, the IG says.
The CWMD office told the IG that it has conducted a recent assessment of biological threats and will work with its federal, state and local partners to assess risks of specific agents and determine what changes may be needed to BioWatch.
The air sampling units deployed at BioWatch sites monitor the air around-the-clock. Filters in the equipment are collected daily and transported to local authorized labs for analysis to determine if a threat is present and share that information with the various stakeholders.
However, the IG found based on CWMD data in 2018 and 2019 there were 906 times where air samples were not collected due to loss of power, including unplugged sampling units, and 13 instances when collections didn’t occur due to various security breaches.
The report says that in some cases jurisdictions didn’t properly secure their sampling units and the power sources. The CWMD Office said it doesn’t have authority to make jurisdictions secure their equipment, although it plans to work with the grants office and DHS lawyers to provide language in cooperative agreements with jurisdictions to improve security.
Finally, even though a November 2018 report by the CWMD Office discussed the importance of routine full-scale exercises for BioWatch to share information, evaluate readiness and capabilities, and identify areas for improvement, the CWMD Office shortly thereafter shifted responsibility for the exercises to local jurisdictions, “leading to a reduction in information sharing efforts,” the IG says.
The CWMD Office agreed with the IG that full-scale exercises are needed and planned for one last month with an after-action report due in April. The office is also developing a five-year plan for BioWatch exercises and to ensure lessons learned are shared across the community.
The CWMD Office is hoping to eventually replace BioWatch with the Biological Detection for the 21st Century (BD21) system of systems. BioWatch lacks real-time reporting and alerting capability given the manual retrieval of samples. The goal with BD21 is have real-time detection to enable rapid response.