Warning that a failed detection system could cause tens of thousands of deaths if a biological agent is released at large events such as the 2026 World Cup, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense said collaborative action is needed now to replace an insufficient BioWatch system used by the Department of Homeland Security.
In a new report, the commission presented a scenario in which symptoms of anthrax exposure begin appearing in 11 cities hosting soccer matches across the country while “the biodetection equipment provided to each stadium by DHS to help protect these National Security Special Events fails to provide any data.” The scenario results in 112,822 cases and 46,257 deaths “despite heavy investment in these programs by DHS and substantial commitment of resources by the BioWatch local jurisdictions themselves.”
BioWatch, which was established in 2003 and costs $80 million per year, “has never been able to consistently demonstrate its operational capability in the field,” the report states, detecting “a small number of organisms with questionable accuracy” and producing results “up to 36 hours after a pathogen may have been present near a detector, long after responders would need to act.” People showing up at hospitals for care would likely set off alarms that a biological event has occurred before the BioWatch system does, the commission adds.
Though the commission has recommended shutting down BioWatch unless reliable technology could replace current systems, Congress has been hoping to seamlessly replace the program with a ready replacement. As DHS’ current biodetection acquisition program, BD21, has failed to get better technology that does exist, the report says, Congress is urged to amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to direct the secretary of Homeland Security to redefine the BioWatch mission tailored to today’s biothreat intelligence and detector operating environments.
DHS should develop new program requirements in collaboration with input from national labs, academic institutions, and state, local, tribal, territorial, and federal stakeholders including a requirement to inform governors and public health departments in BioWatch jurisdictions of results within 60 days. By the 90-day mark, DHS should identify new BioWatch technology and pinpoint where in the nation it should be placed. By the 180-day mark, the report continues, DHS should have acquired at least three technologies that can either work alone or together to meet the redefined mission and jurisdiction requirements.
Within a year, the commission recommends, new biodetection technology should be deployed and new testing and support agreements forged with public health labs in BioWatch jurisdictions. “Replace old BioWatch — and piloted newer BD21 — equipment, end contracts for laboratory testing, and remove government contractors from public health laboratory facilities within 18 months,” the report adds.
DHS also “needs a multi-year, comprehensive biodetection research and development program that leverages broad public and private sector knowledge to develop a system that meets current and future biodetection requirements,” the commission says, and Congress should further amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to put into motion a long-term BioWatch research and development plan in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and NASA along with the private sector, national labs, and academia.
The National Academies of Sciences along with industry should annually stress-test the system to expose gaps. “Develop a robust testing protocol for biodetection prototypes with support and evaluation from collaborating federal departments and agencies and industry, test prototypes in the environments in which BioWatch detectors will or could be deployed, involve officials from these jurisdictions in this prototype testing, and obtain an external evaluation of prototypes to help identify the most promising technologies to achieve the BioWatch mission within 120 days,” the report continues. “Determine how best to deploy replacement technologies strategically and most effectively throughout the Nation on an annual basis with input from the DOD, national laboratories, and National Academies of Sciences within one year and annually thereafter.”
Once biodetection technology receives a successful final evaluation it should be deployed within a year, with continuous research and development ensuring that biodetection technology is always refreshed, the commission recommends.
In the meantime, the commission stresses, BioWatch is burdened by frequent false positives and the need for someone to visit every detector daily to collect and bring filters back to a laboratory for testing — “this virtually guarantees that the system will not identify a biological threat in less than 24 hours.” The data offered is also insufficient for jurisdictions to determine whether a biological attack has occurred and take appropriate action such as evacuations. And as genetic material is easy to alter and the number of emerging infectious diseases increases, any pathogen can be weaponized.
“The system is designed to only detect five or six known pathogens at a time, informed by federal threat assessments focused on the biological agents that adversaries have already weaponized or would most likely use in an attack,” the report notes. “BioWatch was not designed to track naturally occurring, emerging infectious diseases. Biodetection technology does exist, however, that could have detected diseases like the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the environment.”
The best biodetection system should be able to spot “biological attacks (including those using genetically engineered organisms), naturally occurring outbreaks, and accidental pathogen releases caused by an enormous variety of pathogens,” the commission says, along with being quick, accurate, user-friendly, adaptable and flexible, and “able to provide evidence reliably for attribution and law enforcement purposes, thereby finally enabling BioWatch to serve as an effective deterrent.”
“The Department of State and others in the Intelligence Community currently assess that nation states and terrorist organizations are actively pursuing and developing biological weapons (some having already stated their determination to use biological weapons to gain asymmetric advantage over the United States),” the report concludes. “DHS now finds itself in the unenviable position of endlessly doing the same things over and over without achieving the comprehensive biodetection the Nation needs.”