In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush announced the creation of BioWatch, “the nation’s first early warning network of sensors to detect a biological attack.”
“Early warning,” however, is a relative term. Under BioWatch, aerosol samplers and filters in 30 or more places across the country create a daily record of air contents. Every day, filters are manually collected, taken to laboratories, and tested to learn if they contain dangerous biological agents, such as smallpox, anthrax or worse. While the system could detect a pathogen, there is a minimum 12-to-36-hour window between when a dangerous element is released and health officials learn about it.
While OHA investigates its options, DHS S&T is working on new technology that could provide faster, more targeted detection.
For some pathogens, this approach could give warning before sick people started showing up in emergency rooms. Yet, BioWatch is a “detect-to-treat” system, designed to facilitate treatment and vaccination rather than prevent infection. The delayed awareness, as well as the high costs that come with laborious collection and testing, have been motivating factors behind efforts to develop a better system.
Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security Office of Health Affairs (OHA), which administers BioWatch, released a draft request for proposal (RFP) for a new bio-detection system, called Gen 3. This system monitors and autonomously tests suspicious substances, yielding results in four to six hours. It is a $3.1 billion program that would yield technology for operational field testing and evaluation, and while the concept eliminates many of the problems with the current system, it has a few problems of its own.
By some accounts, DHS Science & Technology Under Secretary Tara O’Toole thinks the Gen 3 funding could be better spent enhancing the country’s medical and emergency response. The Los Angeles Times reported that O’Toole’s position is to “kill” Gen 3 – that is, scrap it. To garner Congress’ sign off, OHA commissioned an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) to learn if there are better, cheaper ways to build the system. While OHA investigates its options, DHS S&T is working on new technology that could provide faster, more targeted detection.
D2P: Don’t Just Treat, Protect
O’Toole testified before Congress in 2011 about a new kind of system, one that can address the rapid spread of biological agents in confined areas.
“Such ‘detect to protect’ [D2P] systems are challenging to build, because they must balance the need for a fast detection against the fact that fast detection sensors are prone to false alarms,” she said. “S&T is currently conducting operational tests and evaluations on the D2P system within the Boston Metro.”
D2P is a two-tier system, which includes a trigger that constantly tests the air for dangerous materials and a “confirmer,” an autonomous lab-in-the-field that analyzes material against a roster of deadly elements.
The first round of testing in the Boston Metro recently concluded, and the results are promising. Using a combination of technologies, this D2P system can confirm the presence of a pathogen in about 20 minutes. That’s light speed compared to the current BioWatch capabilities, but given how dangerous elements spread in confined spaces, it needs to be.
S&T’s Dr. Anne Hulgren, Branch Chief of Chemical and Biological Research and Development, said the 20-minute timeframe is based on previous airflow studies revealing how particles move through a subway system.
“When train cars come in, you can feel the gust of wind,” she said. “You only want a few trains to have gone through before you start stopping things, slowing things down and not using the system itself to spread that material.”
D2P is a two-tier system, which includes a trigger that constantly tests the air for dangerous materials and a “confirmer,” an autonomous lab-in-the-field that analyzes material against a roster of deadly elements. If the confirmer determines that a material is a deadly bio agent, it calls in the cavalry. A faster, more reliable system will be welcome technology for state and local agencies charged with protecting widely used public infrastructure. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), for example, sees 1.4 million people pass through its system every day.
“With any type of incident, rapid detection and early warning is key,” said Lewis Best, Deputy Chief of the MBTA Transit Police. “Early detection of any incident will lead to a strategic way to mitigate the incident. It provides us with appropriate emergency response and helps us with proper notification to the public.”
Testing D2P in Complex Infrastructure
Boston’s has the oldest and one of the most complex subway systems in the country, reasons why the MBTA was selected as a testing location for the D2P technology. After the Boston subway closed for the day, teams of scientists went underground. They set up the technology and sprayed small amounts of a dead Bacillus subtilis, which is a common bacterium considered nontoxic to humans, animals and plants, into the air. After release, the particles dissipated quickly, but not before the D2P technology measured their presence. The results were better than expected. The system reported no false positives, which Hulgren said was a benefit of the two-tier system.
The D2P technologies (developed by different vendors) can currently detect three to seven biological agents. The target list, however, is 20 agents long. Adding capabilities to detect the full breadth of dangerous materials will require expensive testing, since more lethal pathogenic organisms can only be worked with in a few, high-security laboratories.
“The first tier goes off once or twice a month, but that’s just saying there is bio material in the air,” she said, giving pollen as an example of such a biological substance. “That then turns on the lab-grade test. If you’re only alerting a few times a month, then the second tier is only being used twice a month.”
Despite the promising results, however, this system is still years away from the market. The tests in Boston were focused on determining how well the system works in a complex environment, but more work remains. The D2P technologies (developed by different vendors) can currently detect three to seven biological agents. The target list, however, is 20 agents long. Adding capabilities to detect the full breadth of dangerous materials will require expensive testing, since more lethal pathogenic organisms can only be worked with in a few, high-security laboratories.
As with the subway airflow studies, the next step for D2P will be to conduct further testing in other infrastructures.
“It is important for scientists to see the comparison,” said Best. “In the Washington [DC] system, all stations are very similar. In Boston, being an older system, the infrastructure is quite different. Ventilation systems are different, and it is important in air studies to determine how contaminates would transverse through the system, but also into the urban environment.”