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Guarding Against the Biological Threat: BioWatch Gen 3

Part 2: Is BioWatch Gen 3 worth the cost?

As reported in the previous post on guarding against the biological threat, D2P could eventually become an important tool in America’s bio-detection arsenal. Yet, it will never be a Gen 3 substitute.

“We are still testing the system and analyzing the data to support transition decisions, but incorporation into the BioWatch program is a possibility,” said Hulgren. “D2P is not intended to fully replace Gen 3, as it was designed for rapid indoor detection only and not to operate outdoors.”

BioWatch is one of the longest running programs at DHS, and if OHA’s current Gen 3 program is any guide, D2P could face a long, hard road to market.

Gen 3 could shorten that lethal window to four hours, but even that leaves a lot of opportunity for a dangerous material to spread. Leaders in DHS and Congress should weigh Gen 3’s real-world benefits and apply some risk-based wisdom.

“The Gen 3 program has been under development for eight years,” said Jeffrey Faszcza, a principal at Catalyst Partners in Washington, D.C. “S&T put a lot of money into it, and about two years ago, OHA picked a company and said ‘we’re going forward with you.’ Since then, that box has failed, and now they’re back to the drawing boards.”

For Gen 3, part of the problem is that the technology and the requirements change often.

“This is not an easy thing to do,” said Faszcza. “We’ve been kicking this can down the road for many years. If the requirements keep changing, you’ll never get there. At some point, when do you decide to spend the money?”

OHA’s AoA could reveal a better or even cheaper way to conduct operational testing and keep Gen 3 on track for national deployment. While the system has its flaws, it is certainly better than the current BioWatch system. Yet, perhaps a more important consideration is whether an open environment bio-detection system is a worthwhile investment to begin with.

Gen 3 could shorten that lethal window to four hours, but even that leaves a lot of opportunity for a dangerous material to spread. Leaders in DHS and Congress should weigh Gen 3’s real-world benefits and apply some risk-based wisdom.

In 1995, the Japanese religious group Aum Shinrikyo simultaneously released five packages of sarin in the Tokyo subway, killing eight people and injuring more than 4,700 others. The attack happened in a matter of minutes, and a similar attack in the United States would produce similar results. If the material released did not cause immediate health problems, it could be 12 hours or more before anyone realized an attack had occurred, and by that point, the rush of subway cars and movement of people could carry the pathogen throughout the system and even up into the urban surroundings.

Gen 3 could shorten that lethal window to four hours, but even that leaves a lot of opportunity for a dangerous material to spread. Leaders in DHS and Congress should weigh Gen 3’s real-world benefits and apply some risk-based wisdom.

A couple of years before Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin subway attack, the group attempted to start an anthrax epidemic. In 1993, they sprayed Bacillus anthracis from the top of an eight-story building in Tokyo. Luckily, the group only got their hands on a strain of bacteria that was used to vaccinate animals against anthrax. No human infections were found, due to the type of bacteria, an ineffective spray device, low spore concentrations and inactivation from sunlight. Conducting a biological attack is not easy, and open environments make it more difficult still. Confined, densely populated areas, however, present a much higher risk.

Why then is OHA poised to spend $3.1 billion on a system with questionable effectiveness and a minimum four-hour alert to protect against an open environment threat that, to date, has never materialized? Meanwhile, S&T is making progress on a more targeted system that provides a near-instant alert to a kind of threat that has already occurred. Even before the AoA is completed, it seems a more intelligent approach would be to protect against viable threats first and hypothetical threats later. By that measure, the D2P technology is a step in the right direction, and the eight-year debacle that is BioWatch Gen 3 is a billion-dollar misplaced investment.

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Justin Hienz writes on counterterrorism, violent extremism and homeland security. In addition to his journalistic...