WASHINGTON, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- The Department of Homeland security is working to expand the BioWatch system -- a nationwide array of sensors sniffing the air in select cities for signs of a bioterror attack -- to a far more integrated network of potentially thousands of linked detectors, each monitoring areas as small as the section of a single building.
BioWatch, which covers segments of some 30 cities, was hurriedly put into place in the months before the war in Iraq by piggybacking on a pollution-sensor system already built by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Despite enthusiastic support from the White House, the program was widely panned for poor planning and high costs. Local officials, for example, were not included in BioWatch discussions until after the system was largely in place, despite the fact they were expected to respond to alarms from the sensors.
Critics said the sensors were too few and sometimes ill placed to give adequate warning. More important, someone had to collect the samples by hand daily and ferry them a laboratory for testing. As a result, labor costs soon began driving BioWatch, and local officials were not open to the idea of picking up the bill.
Now DHS is in the process of expanding the system with an eye on addressing some of its problems at the same time. Detectors being developed under the department's Bioagent Autonomous Network would cost $25,000 or less to acquire, with operational costs of under $10,000 annually. The BANDs, as the detectors are called, are designed to be rugged and semi-autonomous, requiring service only once a month.
"You still are going to have a laboratory response network (to do tests), but you only take a sample to the lab when you have a presumed positive," said Jane Alexander, deputy director of DHS's Homeland Security Advanced Projects Agency. Alexander described the system to scientists last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington.
Contracts are now underway to begin developing BAND units able to sample the air for at least 20 pathogens or toxins. The units -- which will be the focus of more DHS technology-development contracts -- are supposed to be expandable to enable sampling for more or a different set of agents. If the program is successful, the units should be able to detect as few as 100 organisms or as little as 10 nanograms of a toxin.
The BAND units can preserve live samples of pathogens for up to five days to prevent spoofing. DHS officials are worried terrorist might spread killed versions of a bacteria, keeping themselves safe but triggering the system and scaring the public. Collecting pathogens samples also aids law enforcement in identifying those who released the agent.
DHS has awarded contracts to work on the system to Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Mass., a part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a team led by General Dynamics.
The upgraded system will sample the air far more frequently, reporting at lease every three hours whether it has detected something, and the units would perform the initial testing internally.
How would DHS obtain the results if no one picks up the samples? Simple. The new BAND units are going to be wireless. This not only makes monitoring easier, but also presents the possibility of linking the sensors in real time with other health-surveillance networks to create a continuous-monitoring system.
A well-placed biodefense source, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed the plan to network the sensors.
Plans for the system are reflected in the price. Not that $25,000 is so inexpensive, but it is telling that, according to the DHS solicitation, the price is based on acquisition in "quantities of 1,000." DHS clearly expects a lot of these units to be built.
"The intention there is it would be broadly available -- that the industry would commercialize it and federal, state and local governments could purchase it, as well as private building owners if they wanted to," Alexander told United Press International.
The BAND units will report every three hours, which generally would be quick enough to make sure exposed individuals are given timely treatment. Another program aims to prevent exposure altogether, however.
The managers of the Rapid Automated Biological Identification System, or RABIS, program hope to develop a detector that warns of a bioterror attack in under two minutes. RABIS units would be attached to building heating and air conditioning systems and would be able to shut down ventilation sections in the event or a release. Limiting the spread if a pathogen would prevent others in the building from being exposed.
"It only takes a couple of minutes for a lot of things to spread through a single HVAC zone and just a few minutes more ... to spread through out the building," Alexander said. "A lot of HVAC zones are actually connected and there is a lot of mixing that goes on in buildings. So you need something that is fast enough that you can deal with it."
Like BAND, which would operate indoors or out, RABIS units would test for at least 20 agents with the ability to detect only 100 organisms to trigger an alert. RABIS also is intended to be wireless and require little servicing.
At a hoped-for cost of $50,000 a unit, however, RABIS is not nearly as affordable as BAND. It also is expected to cost roughly $20,000 a year to operate. That implies a distinctly different distribution model. RABIS units most likely would be installed in government buildings, such as the White House or the Pentagon. BAND units theoretically could go anywhere. In fact, they are anticipated for shopping malls, sports arenas and other large venues.
"I think the anticipation is (that) the unattended smoke detector-like device, in the next three to five years (likely) will be available," said Colonel Robert Kaldec, one of the four biodefense-focused members of the White House's Homeland Security Council and a supporter of BioWatch. "I think that will really make this a very credible capability ... It will be widespread. It will be standardized. It will be out there."