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N.Y. pushes to deploy more bioweapons sensors

New York officials last month quietly activated some of the nation's newest generation of early warning sensors to detect a biological attack, turning on a limited number of filing-cabinet-size air filters in sensitive, high-volume areas of Manhattan.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

City officials last month quietly activated some of the nation's newest generation of early warning sensors to detect a biological attack, turning on a limited number of filing-cabinet-size air filters in sensitive, high-volume areas of Manhattan.

But city officials say their effort to expand the program has run into surprising resistance from the White House, which is not widely deploying the machines.

Five years ago, officials here note, the Bush administration was prodding local authorities to move faster to detect the use of biological weapons and pouring billions into biosecurity-related initiatives. New York's leaders now say the administration's enthusiasm and sense of urgency has flagged in its final year in office.

The dispute is partly over whether the new sensors -- each with a $100,000 price tag -- are reliable and affordable enough for widespread deployment. But it is also about whether Washington's early support for such security enhancements has been undermined by distraction and competing budgetary demands.

"We'd like to see a little bit more focus in that area. . . . I think the federal government could do a better job," New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said in an interview this week. He was referring to New York City officials' desire for more detectors and enhanced capabilities under a federal government program known as BioWatch, under which air samplers were installed in 2003 in more than 30 major U.S. cities to detect the airborne release of biological warfare agents such as anthrax, plague and smallpox.

BioWatch was meant to speed up the response of health authorities in the critical hours before disease could spread and symptoms appeared in people. More than $400 million has been spent so far, but officials in New York and elsewhere say the older air samplers installed under the program do not work as well as intended.

The older samplers catch airborne particles in filters that are manually collected once a day and taken to a laboratory, requiring up to 30 hours to detect a pathogen. They may not preserve live organisms that scientists use to select treatment options. And the process is cost- and labor-intensive, leading to false alarms, quality-control problems and limits on the system's size, despite an $85 million-a-year national budget.

Buying time
New York officials say they prefer the newer model activated last month, known as Autonomous Pathogen Detection Systems and developed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory with federal support. They can automatically sniff the air hourly for a week unattended, identify up to 100 harmful species by using two types of genetic and biochemical reaction tests, preserve live specimens and transmit results immediately to headquarters.

"The whole name of the game with BioWatch is to buy yourself time," said Richard A. Falkenrath, Kelly's deputy commissioner for counterterrorism and a former Bush White House homeland security aide.

The faster authorities can pin down the time of exposure, the more aggressively they can go after perpetrators, treat victims in time to help them and avoid the overwhelming logistical challenge and likely panic of having to distribute vaccines or antibiotics to millions of people. "We won't have to make the worst-case assumption," Falkenrath said.

In New York, which Kelly notes was targeted in both the 2001 World Trade Center and anthrax mailing attacks, authorities believe that model could help investigators pin down the moment a pathogen is released. "We see ourselves in the cross hairs here," Kelly said.

In President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, he cited the early deployment of air samplers as an example of "unprecedented measures to protect our people and defend our homeland." Now Jeffrey W. Runge, chief medical officer and assistant secretary for the Department of Homeland Security's office of health affairs, said more research and technical improvements are needed before a costly full-scale deployment.

BioWatch backers in New York say they have a sympathetic ear and strong partner in Runge, but that it has been hard to him to obtain the administration's support to move faster. Runge, however, called Kelly's criticism unfounded, given that DHS has paid 90 percent of the cost to install New York's system and all of its operating costs.

Technical challenges
Runge said technical challenges remain in ensuring new sensors' accuracy and reducing their size and operating costs. He said DHS plans to begin pilot tests this year of alternative sensors -- which it hopes will be better than those made by Lawrence Livermore -- and to oversee a competition between two private bidders, IQuum and Microfluidic Systems, beginning in 2009. As a result, Runge said, decisions on what and how big a system to deploy will be left to the next administration. "That decision has not been made," he said, "and I won't be around for this decision."

"I don't know what better job Washington can do other than having a multiyear, multimillion-dollar research program in how to get better automated pathogen detection," Runge said. "But what we have to do as a federal government is improve on the technology, to make sure other cities that don't have the billions that New York has can actually afford automated detection."

Some policy experts and members of Congress take an even more skeptical position, questioning the premises of the BioWatch program. Last month, for example, lawmakers set aside $2 million of BioWatch's $77 million operating budget for a "cost-benefit" analysis by the National Academy of Sciences of whether BioWatch's basic strategy -- of detecting the use of bioweapons through technology rather than through careful monitoring of disease patterns -- is flawed.

The study is meant to examine whether it would be better to improve diagnostic tests at traditional medical facilities such as hospitals, expand electronic medical recordkeeping and upgrade data links that enable the government to monitor unusual health and agricultural sector disease patterns.

Tara O'Toole, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, asked Congress in October, "Does it make sense to invest limited biodefense funds in more advanced BioWatch technology even as we cut funds for public health personnel needed to analyze BioWatch data, as we are now doing?"