A U.S. alert system designed to detect deadly pathogens such as anthrax in New York and 33 other cities is stalled because lawmakers say they are concerned the next phase may not work.
BioWatch has been delayed and cost estimates have increased since the program started in 2003 under President George W. Bush in response to the post-Sept. 11, 2001 anthrax attacks. The Department of Homeland Security has spent more than $1 billion on BioWatch over 10 years and hired contractors such as Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC:US), of Falls Church, Virginia.
Department of Homeland Security officials want to upgrade to a system called Gen-3, which would use permanent boxes containing small, automated laboratories to detect pathogens and transmit the results to public health officials. Results would be available in as little as four hours after exposure, compared with 12 to 36 hours under the current Gen-2 system, which requires technicians to manually retrieve samples.
“No procurement of this technology can proceed until after the secretary of Homeland Security certifies the science is proven,” Representative Tim Murphy, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said today at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. He said that would avoid a “boondoggle.”
Estimates of how much the next phase of the program may cost vary, according to a House Committee on Energy and Commerce memo last week. An internal department document from December 2011 projected spending as much as $7.7 billion over 15 years, while a Government Accountability Office report estimated costs would be $5.8 billion over 10 years. Those estimates were “based on technologies that failed” to meet operational requirements, the memo said.
“Currently there is no Gen-3,” Michael Walter, BioWatch program manager at the Department of Homeland Security, said today at the hearing. It’s “been placed on hold,” he said.
Northrop, the fifth-biggest government contractor on Bloomberg Government’s list of the 200 largest federal contractors, has worked since at least 2009 to develop technology for BioWatch.
Murphy said that if the science underlying the next phase of BioWatch is proven, “DHS would be expected to pursue the multibillion dollar” program.
Last year, Congress cut about $40 million from the program that Homeland Security department officials had requested. It also required the department’s secretary to “certify” the technology is effective before the agency can begin procuring the next phase of the system, according to memo.
Representative Henry Waxman, of California, the top Democrat on the committee, said in a statement BioWatch was “implemented too hastily” and that delaying the next phase will “protect taxpayers.”
BioWatch is installed at undisclosed locations in cities including Boston, Chicago and Houston. The system is set up to detect pathogens indoors and out.
In at least one instance, the program has worked. After an antiwar protest in 2005, BioWatch filters in Washington picked up traces of a bacterium that causes a potentially deadly infection called tularemia, according to the Department of Homeland Security and city health department.
No cases of illness were reported. Health officials later said the protesters may have kicked up soil contaminated with harmless quantities of the bacterium.
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