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Bag BioWatch because of its bugs? Bad idea [Blowback]

December 07, 2012|By Steven P. Bucci
  • Mobile lab manager Thomas Bunt works at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The mobile lab is a roving tool, part of the airborne pathogen early warning system known as Biowatch.
Mobile lab manager Thomas Bunt works at the Lawrence Livermore National… (Ben Margot / Associated…)

BioWatch, the Homeland Security-led effort to provide early warning if biological pathogens are released against the American people, has fallen into disfavor in some corners. The Times produced a series of highly critical articles, and the editorial board has chimed in, suggesting that the program be "squashed." But calls to bag BioWatch, while well intentioned, are frankly ill-advised.

Yes, BioWatch is far from perfect. The program has problems and needs to improve. But flawed as it is, BioWatch does increase security. Much like Israel's "Iron Dome" missile defense system, BioWatch isn't perfect. But it's a huge improvement over what we had before, which was nothing.

And yes, BioWatch is very costly. But the dangers it aims to mitigate are catastrophic. What leader is prepared to stand before the American people and say, "Well, we might have been able to detect that bio-weapon before it killed thousands of innocents, but BioWatch might not have saved everyone ... and just think of all the money we saved by pulling the plug!"

The critics' biggest complaint with the system is the frequent occurrence of false positives. Benign "near-neighbor organisms" closely related to real pathogens can trigger BioWatch alarms. But this should be seen as an indication of success rather than a defect. It signals that the system is working, able to detect and inform on organisms that are not only identical to base pathogens being sought (the bugs we know) but also those that are slightly varied (the bugs we don't know).

For countering biological weapons, this is a very good thing. Slight variations of a pathogen should still trigger a response. Mutation and manipulation are very real aspects of biological weaponry. To leave the system with no flexibility here would severely limit its ability to protect. If made too rigid, bad guys could easily evade detection by slightly altering base pathogens.

That said, it is certainly necessary to limit these false alarms as much as possible and for the equipment to be updated to account for any of these similar organisms that are a natural part of the environment. Without correcting this, BioWatch will soon find itself in boy-who-cried-wolf territory. But the need for systemic correction argues for keeping the system evolving, not for killing it.

Critics also push the issue of cost against the fact that the new system is no more accurate than the old. But that's the result of sliding priorities. In designing the next-generation system, improved accuracy was subordinated to the goals of expanding the parameters of surveillance and shortening response times. Efforts focused on placing sensors indoors as well as on top of buildings (understanding that the most likely release would be within a building).

The tech wizards concentrated on cutting response time by developing the sensors that could test suspect substances themselves rather than wait for a technician to pick up the filter and take it to a lab for processing. These new field labs have proved to be inaccurate; this is something that definitely requires attention. The goal of faster response should have been left as a secondary one to accuracy of response. Again, don't kill the program for attempting to reach the goals they were told to reach, just recalibrate the goals.

A key critic of BioWatch is Homeland Security's own undersecretary for science and technology, Tara O'Toole. She would rather spend the funds on response actions "such as establishing computer links between hospitals, large HMOs and public health agencies to speed the distribution of medicine after an attack."

There is always a need to weigh the detection of future attacks against the needs of response. This is a gamble; funds, like those of many other programs, especially biological response vaccinations, may go wasted -- in fact, let's hope they do.

The answer is not to cut BioWatch but to ensure that the response actions are adequately funded as well. The biological threat is only increasing, and if this defense system is dropped, the U.S. will be that much further behind. Without deploying and using the system, biological detection capability will never move forward and we will have no hope of functioning, dependable equipment in the future.

In bio-defense, as in missile defense, we need as much protection as we can possibly field. Today, that protection is not perfect or all-encompassing. America does not have the luxury of endless tests in laboratory conditions. The threat is real today, and adversaries are doggedly trying to acquire bio-weapons for use against us.

In this environment, we should utilize the investment already made, while understanding the limitations and seeking continual improvement. Every day BioWatch is used, it gets better. Just because a system is not perfect does not mean it is not valuable, or that it does not protect American lives. BioWatch should be kept in place, with a commitment to ever-better performance.


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Steven P. Bucci is senior research fellow for defense and Homeland Security at the Heritage Foundation.

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