The Homeland Security Department offered a look Friday at its $60 million sensor network to detect bioterrorism threats in 31 cities. The government said the devices, which continuously analyze cities’ air, could save tens of thousands of lives in the earliest days after a wide scale attack. Neighborhoods covered in these 31 cities represent roughly half the U.S. population.
Called “Biowatch,” the project represents one of the Bush administration’s most aggressive efforts to protect Americans from terrorists who might spread deadly biological pathogens, including anthrax, smallpox and plague.
The network of nearly 500 sensors nationwide has never raised a false alarm, said Dr. Parney Albright, an assistant secretary for Homeland Security. Albright and others declined to say which cities are covered, but local authorities have acknowledged the devices are in Washington, New York, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, San Diego and Boston.
Expanded to 31 cities
The Bush administration recently expanded Biowatch from 20 to 31 cities, increasing its cost by more than $20 million annually. Congress hasn’t formally approved the extra spending, but Albright said the request for more money wasn’t related to the department’s decision to organize a demonstration of Biowatch for reporters. The agency has privately admonished city officials for disclosing too many details about Biowatch.
The sensor network isn’t immune from critics, who say Biowatch can’t detect small releases that could sicken hundreds or thousands, doesn’t monitor attacks indoors and lets too many hours pass between a possible attack and testing of air samples.
“Unless it is a major atmospheric release of large quantities of material, I do not think it would be hard at all for Biowatch to miss an attack,” said Calvin Chue, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University.
The government’s experts say the project is relatively cheap by Washington standards — roughly $60 million each year — and could save tens of thousands of lives by helping determine who should receive antibiotics after an attack, even before symptoms appear. But they also acknowledge some criticisms.
‘It won't save everyone’
“It won’t save everyone,” Albright said. “By the time we get the hit confirmed, the people who are going to be contaminated have already been contaminated.”
The government’s goal is to reduce the hours between an attack and treatment. “If we can get into that time lag, we can take bioterror agents off the table,” Albright said.
Experts were surprised last month when two Biowatch sensors in Houston detected fragments over three consecutive days of tularemia, a bacteria common among rabbits, prairie dogs and rodents that sometimes spreads to humans. It turned out to be naturally occurring — not a terrorist attack — and no people got sick.
But the incident marked the first time the network had detected such a serious airborne threat. Tularemia was stockpiled as a bioweapon in the 1960s by the U.S. military, partly because the bacteria is highly infectious and easy to disperse and exposure can be fatal in rare cases.
Report paints bleak picture
Biowatch’s daily operations fall to Brian Hayes, a former Green Beret who’s been exposed to anthrax and the plague in his previous work and recently helped dismantle, by hand, a bioweapons factory in the former Soviet Union. The Bush administration hurriedly set up Biowatch in January.
Biowatch blends high-tech laboratory testing each day for nearly a dozen dangerous threats with some laughably low-tech practices: Some of the disposable filters at monitoring sites are retrieved by people riding bicycles, and the government tracks potentially deadly samples using bar-scan coders common in supermarkets.
Homeland Security officials demonstrated for reporters Friday how samples are collected from one sensor near the National Mall, upwind from the Capitol. The $25,000 sensor appeared unremarkable from the outside, resembling an enclosed pay telephone topped with an air intake and radio antenna. Some sensors are smaller and cheaper. Couriers who collected filters inside the sensor delivered them by truck to a military facility in Bethesda, Md., where they tested negative.
The government’s new disclosures about Biowatch coincided with release of a CIA report that paints a bleak picture of bioterror threats. Scientists consulted by the agency concluded that scientific advances could lead to engineered weapons “worse than any disease known to man,” warning that traditional methods for monitoring research on weapons of mass destruction could soon prove inadequate.