The five-year contract for as much as $3.1 billion would upgrade the system to automatically transmit collected data to laboratories, eliminating the present manual handling.
BioWatch has suffered cost estimate increases and delays since then-President George W. Bush, prompted by the post-Sept. 11, 2001, anthrax attacks, started it in 2003. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), chairman of the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over BioWatch, says he wants assurances that costs are under control and has asked the Government Accountability Office to analyze the proposed spending.
“The program could find itself in danger of being cut back or completely scrapped if lawmakers determine that it’s becoming a major and costly acquisition failure,’’ Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, a partner with Monument Policy Group, a Washington-based consulting firm, said in a telephone interview. Herrera-Flanigan was staff director for the House Homeland Security Committee from 2005 through 2008.
Companies with investments at stake include Northrop Grumman, which has worked since at least 2009 to develop technology for BioWatch.
BioWatch was developed after it took more than two weeks to identify what was killing U.S. citizens during the anthrax attacks in 2001, said Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor at Rutgers University’s Newark branch, and author of the book, “The Anthrax Letters.’’
Letters laced with anthrax were sent through the mail and resulted in five deaths, including two postal workers and a newspaper photo editor. Another 17 people became ill. No one has been charged in the attacks, Chris Allen, a Federal Bureau of Investigation spokesman, said by telephone.
“Before BioWatch, we were all canaries in a coal mine,’’ Cole said in a phone interview. “Only after people dropped dead or became ill did we understand that a pathogen was floating around.’’
The federal government has spent about $800 million on BioWatch since 2003, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the subcommittee overseeing the program, said at a March 29 hearing.
He and Bilirakis both questioned the cost of upgrading BioWatch. Lawmakers are “increasingly concerned about the viability of this developing technology and also about the department’s ability to deploy it on time and within budget,’’ Bilirakis said at the hearing of the Homeland Security subcommittee on emergency preparedness, response and communications.
The GAO report, due in August, “will not be considered lightly, especially given our country’s current fiscal situation and the price tag for the BioWatch program,’’ he said in an e-mail message last week.
The estimated lifetime cost of the program rose from $921 million in 2010 to $2.1 billion the following year, according to a June 2010 report by the GAO, citing figures from the Office of Management and Budget.