Although the US has made significant strides towards improving preparedness for a bioterrorist attack, the nation’s biosurveillance capabilities are a far cry from adequate, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found he nation’s billion dollar biosurveillance detection system can’t be counted on to actually work.
In April, the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications said a biological terrorist attack on the US is an "urgent and serious threat."
The US began to recognize a bioterrorist attack as a serious and urgent threat just days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 when anonymous letters laced with deadly anthrax spores were sent through the mail, sickening 17 people and killing 5 others. The anthrax attacks awakened the nation to the catastrophic impact of a bioterrorist attack in the US.
Shortly thereafter, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) quickly rolled out a biosurveillance program known as BioWatch to provide early warning of a biological weapon attack in the US. Deployed in more than 30 metropolitan areas throughout the country, the system uses aerosol collectors to detect the intentional release of select aerosolized biological agents.
However, GAO determined the rapid deployment of the program in 2003 did not allow for sufficient testing and evaluation of the system’s capabilities. The report said that without sufficient testing, DHS could not support the claim that the program could meets its operational objective to detect catastrophic attacks, which they define as attacks large enough to cause 10,000 casualties.
“DHS officials told us that in the 12 years since BioWatch’s initial deployment, they have not developed technical performance requirements against which to measure the system’s ability to meet its objective,” GAO stated.
Over the years, numerous false alarms have plagued the program, exasperating local and state officials where the detection system is deployed. From 2003 through 2014, BioWatch generated 149 mistaken detections — all of which have been termed false positives by scientists at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other experts GAO consulted.
False positives are more than just a mere annoyance. They can lead to the shutdown of major transportation and economic facilities, such as airports and shopping centers, as well as the unnecessary medication of an uninfected public.
“I am supportive of efforts in early detection and mitigation of a biological attack against our homeland,” said Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). “However, GAO raises serious questions about the uncertainty in the capabilities of the current BioWatch system. We may be missing opportunities to properly support our biodefense infrastructure.”
The current BioWatch system in use is referred to as Gen-2, which expanded deployment of the system to additional jurisdictions and included the addition of indoor monitoring capabilities in three high-threat jurisdictions. While DHS has taken steps to mitigate the limitations associated with not testing the Gen-2 system in an operational environment with live biothreat agents, GAO determined DHS did not systematically test the Gen-2 system under the most realistic possible conditions.
“Because it is not possible to test the BioWatch system directly by releasing live biothreat agents into the air in operational environments, DHS relied on chamber testing and the use of simulated biothreat agents, which limit the applicability of the results,” GAO’s audit report report stated. “These limitations underscore the need for a full accounting of statistical and other uncertainties, without which decision makers lack a full understanding of the Gen-2 system’s capability to detect attacks of defined types and sizes and cannot make informed decisions about the value of proposed upgrades.”
As soon a DHS deployed the BioWatch program in 2003, they began working on an autonomous detection capability known as Gen-3 in order to reduce operational costs, as well as the time required to detect biothreat agents. DHS envisioned that the system would automatically collect air samples, conduct analysis to detect the presence of biothreat agents every 4 to 6 hours, and communicate results to public health officials via an electronic network without manual intervention.
However, after a GAO audit recommended DHS examine the acquisition process, DHS subsequently commissioned an analysis of alternatives, which was interpreted by DHS as showing that any advantages of an autonomous system over the current manual system were insufficient to justify the cost of a full technology switch.
DHS cancelled the Gen-3 acquisition in April 2014, and made Gen-2 the official program of record for aerosol biological threat detection. In the next year, some Gen-2 equipment will reach the end of its lifecycle; consequently, DHS will need to make decisions about reinvesting in the program.
DHS is considering autonomous detection as an upgrade to Gen-2, with possible benefits including reduction in casualties and clean-up costs. But, GAO said, “The extent of these benefits is uncertain because of several assumptions, such as the speed of response after a detection, that are largely outside of DHS’s control.”
GAO added, “As a result, the effectiveness of the response—and the number of lives that could be saved—is uncertain.”
Consequently, GAO recommended DHS not pursue upgrades or enhancements for Gen-2 until it reliably establishes the system’s current capabilities. Additionally, DHS should incorporate best practices for testing in conducting any system upgrades.
DHS generally concurred with GAO’s recommendations.
“The findings by the GAO bring into focus shortcomings in the BioWatch program at a time when concerns about the threat of a bioterrorism event are elevated,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), ranking member Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications Subcommittee Chairman Martha McSally (R-AZ), and Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications Subcommittee ranking member Donald Payne, Jr. (D-NJ) in a joint statement.
“Earlier this month, the co-chairs of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense testified before our Committee on the threat posed by bioterrorism,” McCaul, Thompson, and McSally added. “They made it clear that that we must act aggressively and deliberately to bolster our ability to detect and rapidly respond to a bioterror event. We also know terrorist groups, like ISIS, aspire to conduct attacks using biological agents. These facts make the GAO’s findings about BioWatch all the more concerning.”
Just weeks ago, Homeland Security Today reported that the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Panel on Biodefense strongly encouraged renewed focus on the need for rapid diagnostics and prioritization of the development of a fully functional environmental detection system to replace BioWatch.
“The entire BioWatch system is dying for lack of innovation,” the report stated. “DHS attempted and failed to acquire next-generation BioWatch technology (Generation 3) that could have reduced time to-detection to as few as six hours. Even if the acquisition had been successful, the system would still have been flawed: like the current system, it would have addressed only a small number of biological agents, inactivated them, and relied on non-random air currents.”
“To date, no fully automated, tested, and evaluated autonomous detection system has been deployed that adequately addresses the airborne biological threat or sufficiently provides operational response information,” the report added.
Bioterrorist attack: hype or reality?
GAO’s report emerged amid a time of heightened concern over the nation’s vulnerability to biological terrorism. Moldovan police working alongside the Federal Bureau of Investigation recently uncovered multiple attempts by gangs with suspected Russian connections to sell radioactive material to Islamic State militants.
Homeland Security Today recently reported that the possibility of a bioterrorist event is not simply hype—it is a reality. Of particular concern is the threat of terrorist use of a “dirty bomb,” a type of radiological dispersal device (RDD) that combines conventional explosives such as dynamite with radioactive material like Cobalt 60.
Although terrorists have yet to launch a successful RDD attack on US soil, the threat is real and terrorists have shown an interest in RDDs. The material needed to make a dirty bomb is almost everywhere and the technical sophistication required to create such a device is minimal. Moreover, the intent to create and use such a device is certainly there.
“There can be absolutely no doubt as to the aspirations of terrorist groups, particularly Islamic organizations like ISIS, to acquire and use any and all weapons of mass destruction they can,” said former CIA WMD counterterrorism official Charles Faddis told Homeland Security Today. “ISIS holds an apocalyptic worldview. It is not simply in a battle with the West — it is in the final battle. They believe the world is literally coming to an end, and any and all means necessary must be employed to ensure they emerge victorious. There is no such thing as too far or too horrific.”
Just last month, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation recently held a hearing to discuss the vulnerability of US ports to terrorist attacks using a dirty bomb.
During the hearing, Dr. Stephen Flynn, director of the Center for Resilience Studies at Northeastern University, testified that if a dirty bomb ends up in the wrong hands, our country is at grave risk. Currently, there is a real and present danger that containers will be used as modern-day Trojan horses, since the reality is no one really knows what is inside a container except those who are there when the container is packed.
“Should a dirty bomb that originated overseas be set off in a US port, it would represent a major security breech in the global supply system that will result in US port closures,” Flynn said. “This, in turn, will place the intermodal transportation system at risk of widespread economic disruption generating tens of billions of dollars in losses, and potentially endangering lives as the shipments of critical time-sensitive goods such as medical supplies and defense-related materials are interrupted.”
Furthermore, earlier this year, Homeland Security Today conducted an exclusive interview with Brig. Gen. JB Burton, the commanding general of the United States Army 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Command (CBRNE), in which he stated both ISIS and Al Qaeda’s leaders and their determined affiliates around the world have made it exceedingly clear they seek weapons of mass destruction – especially chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear – to use in attacks on the West – in particular, the United States.
CBRNE and security experts are all saying the same thing: terrorists are intent on using a biological weapon to attack the United States. The failure of US bio-preparedness efforts like BioWatch is not only wasting taxpayer dollars, it is putting the safety of the American people at risk.
“Now more than ever we need reassurances that our efforts to combat and prevent bioterrorism are successful and trusted. It is clear that BioWatch has not lived up to the job it set out to do, and we must put our efforts toward finding a program that will be successful in detecting and preventing these catastrophic attacks,” said full committee chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-Penn.),and Oversight and Investigations ranking member Diana DeGette (D-Co.) in a statement.