WASHINGTON -- A leading government biodefense adviser on Tuesday urged the United States to rethink a core element of its strategy for detecting the first signs of a biological-weapon strike, in part by abandoning plans to stand up a new nationwide network of remotely operated disease agent sensors.
Instead of pursuing a multibillion-dollar upgrade to the Biowatch detection system, the country should phase in procedures over the next decade to regularly screen emergency response personnel, medical patients or other "selected populations" for unexpected exposure to disease agents, former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig said.
"One way of doing this would be [to] regularly sample police and firemen as they come off shifts, build a health baseline for them from analysis of blood" or other means and to monitor for "some massive kind of change," said Danzig, a bioterrorism specialist on the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board and the President's Intelligence Advisory Board.
The Obama administration is reportedly poised later this year to formally seek candidate technology for a third generation of Biowatch detection equipment. In 2012 findings that criticized plans for the initiative as inadequate, congressional auditors said the Homeland Security Department as of last September had already spent $150 million to develop scanners for the upgrade.
Homeland Security spent around $1 billion between 2003 and late 2012 to deploy and operate Biowatch technology in more than 30 cities; the future surveillance program is projected to cost more than three times that amount in its first half-decade of operation, and it would extend the network to approximately 20 additional urban areas, according to past reports.
Pursuing the Biowatch Generation 3 initiative "is not the direction we ought to [take]," Danzig said. Devices in the planned network would independently gather and evaluate air samples for anthrax and other dangerous organisms several times each day; today, personnel must manually remove samples from existing Biowatch sensors for laboratory analysis.
In prepared remarks, Danzig argued that his proposal would offer protection against a wider array of disease threats than Biowatch scanners, which monitor the air for a select set of organisms deemed to be likely instruments in a terrorist attack. That strategy, he said, assumes "the attacker won't over the course of the next decade design around them or make choices that circumvent them, or [artificially] modify them enough to hide them from our system or disguise them by connecting with other kinds of pathogens."
Current Biowatch technology monitors the air for genetic material from five disease organisms, according to last year's report from the Government Accountability Office.
Unlike air sampling, human surveillance could "recognize the existence of any pathogen or even pathogens we haven't seen before," he told an audience at an American Society for Microbiology research meeting on biodefense and emerging diseases. Location-tracking technology on emergency response vehicles could help authorities to trace signs of an emerging disease outbreak to specific areas, and positioning features in cellular telephones could serve a similar function for incoming hospital patients, he suggested.
Proponents of the Generation 3 initiative contend the planned technology would provide authorities with earlier warning than testing humans for an unfolding biological strike, but Danzig said air sampling does not offer "any kind of lead information ... before people are infected."
"Individuals who are ... exposed because they're near the site of attack are likely to present [symptoms] vastly quicker," he said in response to a question. He added that ongoing Defense Department studies promise an eventual capability to spot agents through "small changes in [blood sample] protein composition ... long before" emergency response personnel show signs of infection.
The existing Biowatch system has faced significant criticism in light of reports that it alerted authorities to potential biological strikes on dozens of occasions from 2003 to 2009. None of the cases involved an actual act of bioterrorism, but DHS officials have challenged characterization of the events as false alarms.
Homeland Security hopes the Generation 3 network will be capable of alerting authorities to a biological strike in four to six hours, a fraction of the 12-36 hour delay anticipated with the existing system.
"Biowatch is designed to provide the nation with the greatest lead time possible to respond to the potential release of a biological agent," Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Alexander Garza said last July. "The faster we detect an event, the more lives we can save by responding and delivering medical countermeasures."
Danzig declined to offer a precise estimate for the cost of his own proposal. "When scientists do the arguing, I find the [human] surveillance case over the next decade [is] stronger, and I think it'll turn out the same way in terms of costs," he said during a question-and-answer session.
Standing up such a system should be possible under existing law, he later told Global Security Newswire. Grant-making authorities established under legislation such as the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act could aid in implementation, he said without elaborating.
Separately, Danzig said scientists had yet to answer key questions on responding to a bioterror threat, such as how best to counter the "reaerosolization" of biological agents from surfaces in city subways and other areas.
"We have a fair amount [of research] on how to decontaminate a hospital, for obvious reasons," he said. "I don't know of literature that tells us of how an ordinary household should go about decontaminating."
"The degree of our preparation against the first attacks will hugely determine the likelihood that others will copycat. If the effect is to demonstrate how unprepared we are, then we will create incentives for others" to conduct similar attacks, Danzig added.