By Calvin Biesecker

New technologies currently under development will compete beginning in April 2009 in an operational test and evaluation to see how well they performs in automatically collecting and detecting potentially harmful pathogens as well as meeting cost performance goals, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials said on Wednesday.

The "fly-off" next spring will include three companies which are currently developing their respective systems under contracts with the Science & Technology branch of DHS as well as any commercially available solutions, Robert Hooks, deputy assistant administrator for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Biodefense within the DHS Office of Health Affairs, told a House panel.

IQuum, Microfluidic Systems (MFSI) and U.S. Genomics are each refining their next-generation BioWatch solutions, also called Generation 3, under separate contracts.

Generation 1 and 2 versions of BioWatch are currently deployed in over 30 major cities and urban areas throughout the United States. The systems continuously collect air samples in outdoor locations. Those samples are manually retrieved on a daily basis and taken to public health laboratories for testing against several potentially deadly pathogens, with anthrax at the top of the list.

The manual collection using the Gen 1 and 2 collectors is time consuming and costly. Currently it takes anywhere between 10 and 34 hours to get a laboratory response.

Under Gen 3, DHS plans to have the machines not only collect the air samples but also perform the analysis automatically and provide an alert within four to six hours if a potential threat has been encountered. Moreover, given the relatively quick collection and analysis times, the Gen 3 machines will also be designed to work indoors in places such as airports and subway systems.

The other big plan for Gen 3 systems is that they will eventually be able to detect for all pathogens that are on a threat list.

As for cost, the Gen 3 systems are expected to be priced about $30,000 less per unit than the current BioWatch machines and cost between $30,000 and $50,000 less annually per unit, William Jenkins, director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the Government Accountability Office, said before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cyber Security, and Science and Technology.

If the three to six months of testing planned for Gen 3 goes well, then DHS expects to begin deploying the machines in 2010 and complete the installations in 2013. The new systems will be deployed alongside existing BioWatch collectors for two to three months as part of a transition phase.

The development of Gen 3 has been delayed by over a year. Hooks said that the requirements for Gen 3 were aggressive and pushed the envelope of science and technology, which always creates an element of risk in technology development. So the initial projections regarding the technology were optimistic but the payoff so far is that "you are further down the technical maturity cycle of the technology," he said. The April 2009 competitive test and evaluation start remains on track, he added.

DHS S&T recently began awarding new funds to the three Gen 3 companies to continue development and provide prototypes for the fly-off. U.S. Genomics said it has received a $9.1 million contract and MFSI also announced the receipt of additional funds but did not disclose the amount.

If there are continued development problems with the Gen 3 systems, Hooks said it would probably be best to further delay the program rather than write less stringent requirements because of the importance of getting automated machines fielded. He noted that DHS has fielded Gen 2.5 prototypes at some locations in New York City which provide automated collection, detection and analysis every four to six hours but are more costly than the Gen 3 systems. He added that the Gen 2.5 systems won’t be able to do the automatic analysis for the range of pathogens hoped for with the next-generation machines.

"The reason we want to get to Gen 3 is because of the significantly lower cost of procurement and operation as well as specificity to identify the pathogen of concern," Hooks testified. "If we can’t get there…then we do need to look for an alternative interim solution and do some cost benefit analysis."