Continuing their coverage of the Biowatch program, the LA Times recently reported on a House oversight committee hearing on “Continuing Concerns Over BioWatch and the Surveillance of Bioterrorism.” A surprising admission, at least to me, that emerged concerns the Department of Homeland Security’s change in their risk assessment of bioterrorism:
Although BioWatch was designed with the belief that hostile foreign governments could sponsor large-scale germ attacks on American cities, the Homeland Security planners said they no longer saw this as the primary threat. They instead believe that small-scale releases of anthrax or other pathogens are the most plausible type of attack — but that these events would be least likely to be detected by BioWatch.
A couple of points here:
- Considering when the program was developed, the “hostile foreign governments” in question are likely Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. We now know that no biological weapon program was found in Iraq. And I have a hard time believing that North Korea and Iran wouldn’t be deterred by the threat of nuclear annihilation if they were found to have attacked the U.S. with biological weapons.
- However, I also remember that at the time there existed a high level of concern that terrorists could produce or obtain and disperse a biological agent over a city or in a large building. This was in the aftermath of the anthrax letters.
- So what’s changed in the risk equation? Perception or an updated assessment of a terrorist group’s potential operational capabilities? Fears of Iraqi weapons proved unfounded and maybe analysts came to believe there is some level of protection from hostile states afforded by having thousands of nuclear missiles and a fearsome conventional military? Is the degradation of “Al Qaeda Core” seen as removing the primary terrorist source of a large scale bio-attack? All along was the primary concern that terrorists could only get a lot of anthrax from a state sponsor, but this was kept secret to duck questions about deterrence? Or have they just stopped listening to Richard Danzig?
The technical problem:
Two Homeland Security scientists, Segaran Pillai and Douglas Drabkowski, have “cited a number of limitations” with BioWatch’s detection ability, called sensitivity, according to an investigative summary prepared by the Energy and Commerce Committee’s staff.
Pathogens released at low, yet infectious doses are “least likely” to be detected by BioWatch because of “the system’s lack of sensitivity,” the summary said.
One Congressman’s solution:
As for Generation 3, Murphy suggested that spending billions for it would be inconsistent with the Homeland Security Department’s revised assumptions regarding a large-scale bioattack. The assumptions are outlined in the department’s bioterrorism risk assessments, conducted every two years.
“This costly approach is unbalanced and misdirected,” Murphy said. “It makes no sense to expand outdoor monitoring for a less likely large-scale attack, while not addressing the declining number of public health responders who are needed in any kind of attack.”
I absolutely agree with the last statement. The recession hit the public health workforce hard, and these are the very men and women who will be on the front lines of a response to a bioterrorist attack or a naturally occurring pandemic. If the federal government could provide funds to increase the number of local cops during the 1990s, how about doing the same for public health today?
In terms of this latest turn in the BioWatch program, I am both happy and a little dismayed. Happy that this seems to be an indication that some real risk analysis is taking place, albeit behind closed doors. Dismayed that I harbor concerns that before all this money was spent, the system was conceived to detect any aerosolized attack and this new focus on “small-scale releases” is due to the realization that planners wrote checks that technology can not yet cash.