U.S. Halts Pilot Program in New York to Detect Biological Attacks

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Department of Homeland Security is dismantling a next-generation biological attack warning system in New York City subways because of technical problems, U.S. officials said.

Robert Hooks, a deputy assistant secretary, said the department no longer believes it is necessary to expand the pilot program, as he told Congress in July, because of resource and technology limits. Hooks said a long-planned alternative sensor system, set for initial deployment late next year, also will not be available nationwide until 2012, to allow for more testing.

The deactivation of the pilot program in late March marks a setback in U.S. efforts to detect biological weapons, and its disclosure comes as the Obama administration is unveiling new security priorities as part of its 2010 budget today.

The federal government installed air samplers in more than 30 U.S. cities in 2003 to detect the release of potential bioweapons such as anthrax spores, plague bacteria and smallpox viruses. The BioWatch program, which cost about $500 million, was meant to speed up the response before disease could spread.

Critics said older samplers are of limited use, however, because they rely on air filters that must be manually collected and evaluated by a laboratory, taking as much as 30 hours. New York City activated newer sensors in late 2007 that can automatically sniff the air hourly for as many as 100 harmful species and transmit results immediately.

In the past three or four months, however, officials noticed that an instrument designed to detect a particular agent in several of the Autonomous Pathogen Detection System sensors began malfunctioning, Hooks said. The department's science and technology directorate is working with an independent assessor and the sensors' maker, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, to troubleshoot the problem, he said.

DHS and New York officials said that the decision was mutual and that the city is still protected by older sensors, whose samples are being evaluated more frequently.

Lawrence Livermore spokesman Steve Wampler said the lab supports additional DHS testing and added: "We believe we have a technology solution for detecting biological agents that is available now."

DHS expects tests to begin this summer of a new generation of sensors, called Gen 3 BioWatch, Hooks said. "It's always a trade-off, a balance between how you can get technology out there and how much . . . risk there is that it will divert resources" from better options, he said. "We anticipate because of the production cycle and further testing we'll be deploying in 2012 widely across the country."

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