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Homeland Security

BioWatch

BioWatch, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) environmental monitoring program, has been successfully operating in many of the nation's urban centers since early 2003. DHS manages the program in cooperation with its deferal partners, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agency. This early warning environmental monitoring system can detect trace amounts of biological materials in the air, and has been used to provide information to assist public health experts determine whether detected materials are due to an intentional release (bioterrorism incident) or due to minute quantities that occur naturally in the environment. BioWatch information enables federal, state, and local officials to more quickly determine appropriate emergency response, medical care and consequence management.

The Goals of BioWatch are to:

  • Provide early warning of a biological attack by expeditiously identifying the bio-agent, thereby minimuzing zasualities in an affected area;
  • Assist in establishing forensic evidence on the source, nature, and extent of biological attack to aid law enforecement agesnts in identifying the perpetrators; and
  • Determins a preliminary spatial distribution of biological contamination, including what populations may have been explosed.

BioWatch is capable of:

  • Rapidly recognize the release of likely biological agents before the onset of clinical illness.
  • Low false alarm.
  • Unattended for extended periods.
  • Sense several different threats simultaneously.
  • Portability.

In the BioWatch system, air is sampled by a network of distributed aerosol collectors, and the resulting filter samples are taken to a central analytical laboratory for processing. Samples are processed using several individual TaqManT-based PCR assays designed to test the sample for different biological agents. The established protocol requires that any individual presumptive screen reactive test be re-analyzed using a much more extensive panel of assays. Even though this kind of testing is time-consuming and labor intensive, BioWatch has analyzed well over two million samples with zero false positives to date. Although this system has exhibited unparalleled performance, the time between aerosol collection and analytical results may be long (averaging 24 hours), depending upon collector and lab locations), and because the system is very labor intensive, it is very expensive to operate. In fiscal year 2005, President Bush requested $118 million to support and expand BioWatch, including developing improved monitors.

In 2005, it was reported that there were obstsacles to overcome with BioWatch. According to the EPA who is responsible for monitor deployment, site security, oversight, and assessing monitor technology, the BioWatch Network was not deployed and maintained adequately. There was limited oversight and quality assurance. Technological assessment was needed and a biological agent detected in Houston in 2003 highlighted that consequence management planning is incomplete.

As of January 2007, reports indicate that DHS still needs to deisgn and implement management controls to follow-up on deficiencies in field and laboratory operations. Further, DHS has not properly enforced or monitored partner agency reporting needed to coordinate BioWatch. The need to enhance management controls over BioWatch exposes the program to possible mismanagement of funds and could jeopardize DHS' ability to detect biological agents and protect the populace of the United States.



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