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In September 2001, with the just-destroyed World Trade Center still smoldering, letters containing anthrax spores started showing up in the mailrooms of major media companies in New York and elsewhere. It took federal authorities two weeks to identify the bioterrorism attack that ultimately killed five people and sickened 17 others. The government’s come a long way since then, yet it could go farther still—if Congress decides if the investment is worth it.
Right now the Department of Homeland Security uses 600 secret air filters to detect lethal pathogens. Local health officials in the roughly 30 cities that have the filters must manually retrieve them every day and cart them back to labs for testing. So if terrorists released something deadly into the air, it could take about 36 hours depending on the time of the attack before the toxin is identified. That would be enough time for legions of people to get sick or die before officials could react.
Photograph by David Birch
The Obama administration wants to upgrade the technology, known as BioWatch, to cut the response time to six hours or less. But there’s a cost: Estimates to buy and maintain the new sensors have surged to $5.7 billion—six times the initial price tag. Florida Representative Gus Bilirakis, the Republican chairman of the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over BioWatch, has asked the Government Accountability Office to analyze the proposed spending. The agency’s report, due in August, “will not be considered lightly,” says Bilirakis in an e-mail, “especially given our country’s current fiscal situation.”
The 2,500 new sensors and bio-attack alert system Homeland Security wants to buy from Positive ID (PSID), a medical device and biological detection company in Delray Beach, Fla., or Northrop Grumman (NOC), the fifth-largest federal contractor, would be fully automated. Air sniffers would collect samples at least four times a day, and an internal computer would run a DNA test on the particles for traces of anthrax, smallpox, Ebola, and other pathogens. The so-called labs-in-a-box would then send the results immediately over a secured network to local and federal officials, who would verify them and dispatch drugs to hospitals in the event of an attack.
Homeland Security has already spent at least $30 million trying to develop the new system. It was originally scheduled to go live this month, but a series of bureaucratic delays and tech glitches—the agency changed the specs; the contractors couldn’t get the DNA testing to work correctly—have held up progress.
Now that PositiveID and Northrop Grumman say they’ve worked through these problems, Homeland Security wants to open bidding on a $3.1 billion contract for the labs-in-a-box before October. “I’m hopeful when Congress takes a look at the situation and where the technology is,” says Dave Tilles, director of Northrop’s homeland-security business unit, “they will see this as a good investment for the country.”
Getting that big of a commitment from Capitol Hill may be tough in an election year. For the moment, lawmakers are working on spending bills that withhold some funds for BioWatch. “Is it really going to deliver what they have been advertising?” asks Randall Larsen, chief executive officer of the WMD Center, a consulting firm in Washington. “It’s real hard to do a return on investment because there are a lot of unknowns.”
Homeland Security’s proposed upgrade:
1. Computerized “labs-in-a-box,” such as those made by PositiveID (pictured above), can detect deadly pathogens in the air.
2. The labs—2,500 of them—would be installed at secret, high-traffic locales in some 30 cities, including Boston, New York, Las Vegas, and Houston.
3. Automated air sniffers would take samples several times a day. An internal computer runs a DNA test, sending results over a secured network to local labs.
4. Within six hours of each air sampling, officials would know if germs are present and if drugs or vaccines are needed at local hospitals.
The bottom line: Homeland Security wants to install bioterror sensors that would sniff out deadly germs in six hours or less, down from the current 36.