OIG: BioWatch Gaps Leave the U.S. At Risk of a Bioterrorism Attack

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) says the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs to improve the BioWatch Program in order to prevent a significant loss of human life. 

DHS’ Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction’s BioWatch is designed to operate a nationwide aerosol detection system. It was established in 2003 in response to the 2001 anthrax attacks. The system is intended to detect potential biological threat agents, identify the agent used, and share information with stakeholders, serving as an early warning system. But OIG found that BioWatch has information sharing challenges that reduce nationwide readiness to respond to biological terrorism threats.

BioWatch is not currently operating a nationwide early warning system. Its biological detection equipment is located in just 22 of 50 states (44 percent), which leaves 28 states without coverage. This occurred because BioWatch has not reassessed its strategic posture and designated locations needing coverage since 2003. Moreover, BioWatch equipment in 34 of 35 jurisdictions could not always collect air samples to test for biological threats because the equipment was not secured to prevent unplugging or security breaches. 

OIG’s report notes that CWMD’s data identified 906 instances where air samples were not collected due to loss of power that included unplugged portable sampling units (PSUs). CWMD’s data also identified 13 instances within five jurisdictions where PSU air samples were not collected due to security breaches involving vandalism, tampering, or theft. 

The watchdog found six of 17 PSU equipment locations in three states (Massachusetts, Illinois, and Florida) where the jurisdictions did not properly secure the PSUs and their respective power sources. In these six locations, PSUs did not have physical security barriers or locks, making them vulnerable. 

Further, BioWatch monitors and detects just 6 of 14 (approximately 43 percent) biological agents known to be threats because it has not updated its biological agent detection capabilities with the 2017 threat assessment results. Also, as of 2018, BioWatch stopped conducting routine full-scale exercises with its jurisdictions in preparation for a potential bioterrorism attack. According to BioWatch officials, this occurred because CWMD leadership directed BioWatch to no longer conduct these exercises, leaving each jurisdiction discretion to perform its own exercises. This direction came after BioWatch transitioned from DHS’s Science & Technology Directorate in December 2018.

Ultimately, the IG found that the United States is at risk of a bioterrorism attack going undetected and has therefore recommended that CWMD:

  • Conduct risk assessments of BioWatch’s posture and align its capabilities with the program’s mission. 
  • Revise and update BioWatch cooperative agreements to ensure physical security of all CWMD portable sampling unit equipment throughout all BioWatch jurisdictions. 
  • Utilize the most recent threat assessment to enhance biological agent detection capabilities to respond to the most up-to-date threats. 
  • Conduct routine full-scale exercises and share the after-action reports with all stakeholders to improve nationwide information sharing and preparedness.

CWMD concurred with all four recommendations and said it will have the Los Alamos National Laboratory conduct a new assessment to assist BioWatch with optimizing its defense against bioterrorism. The estimated completion date for this is September 30, 2021. It also pledged to strengthen security for the PSUs by the end of this month, and share an after-action report from a full-scale exercise that includes biological threats by April 30, 2021. CWMD will further coordinate with federal, state, and local partner agencies to further assess the risks of specific pathogens to determine what additional changes to BioWatch agents are appropriate by the end of the year.

Read the partially redacted report at OIG

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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