The $5.7 billion figure covers a longer time period — 17 years, vs. 10 years — and program planners “assigned no confidence level’’ to the $2.1 billion estimate, he said.
BioWatch currently uses canisters that must be installed manually and taken to a lab for analysis. It can take 48 hours to get the results. That delay could mean lost lives in an emergency, Michael Walter, program manager for BioWatch, said in a phone interview.
The upgraded system, called Gen-3, would use permanent boxes containing small, automated laboratories that would detect pathogens and then securely transmit the information to local health departments. Results would be available in as little as three hours, Walter said.
BioWatch is installed at undisclosed locations in cities that include Boston, Chicago and Houston. The system is set up to detect pathogens indoors and out, Walter said.
In one incident, after an antiwar protest in 2005, BioWatch filters in Washington picked up traces of a bacterium that causes a potentially deadly infection called tularemia, according to the Department of Homeland Security and city health department. No cases of illness were reported. Health officials later said the protesters may have kicked up soil contaminated with harmless quantities of the bacterium.
Northrop, based in Falls Church, tested its BioWatch technology in 2010 with an $8.4 million contract. In all,Northrop has received about $18 million for BioWatch from the federal government, Yolanda Murphy, a company spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
The company has experience overseeing the U.S. Postal Service’s biodetection system, said Dave Tilles, Northrop’s director of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and enhanced conventional weapons defense systems.
“We understand what it takes to develop, manufacture and support automated biodetection systems,’’ he said in a telephone interview. “We think the technology for BioWatch Gen-3 is ready, and we hope that Congress moves ahead with this important mission.’’
As the costs of BioWatch rise, they will need to be weighed against the system’s intended benefits, Walter said.
“From a public health standpoint we have to ask if this program is going to be useful in reducing casualties and will it be an improvement over the current system,’’ he said. “How do you deal with the value of human life and human suffering?’’
— Bloomberg Government
With assistance from Brian Friel in Washington.