In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush announced deployment of “the nation’s first early-warning network of sensors to detect a biological attack.”
Known as BioWatch, the system consists of air samplers installed in more than 30 cities across the United States. Every day, filters are removed from the devices and taken to public health laboratories for analysis. BioWatch is supposed to detect traces of the pathogens that cause anthrax, smallpox, plague and other infectious diseases.
As David Willman reported Sunday in the Los Angeles Times, BioWatch has been plagued by false positives – 56 of them by the end of 2008. State and local health officials have so little confidence in the system that not once have they ordered evacuations or distributed emergency medicines in response to a positive reading. None of BioWatch’s alerts has corresponded to an actual biological attack, and field testing and computer modeling suggest the system would be unlikely to detect one.
Despite these shortcomings, bipartisan majorities of Congress have unfailingly supported additional spending for BioWatch. The system has cost taxpayers about $1 billion so far. The Obama administration is considering whether to award a contract for a next-generation version that would cost an additional $3.1 billion over five years.