Shelve BioWatch upgrade, scientist urges

Nov. 13, 2012 at 11:22 AM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 13 (UPI) -- An upgrade of BioWatch, the system for detecting a biological attack, should be canceled, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security secretary was advised.

Scientists familiar with the situation said Tara O'Toole, the department's undersecretary for science and technology, told Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano the Generation 3 version of BioWatch could be relied on to detect deadly pathogens in the event of an attack, but was concerned that the $3.1 billion upgrade would funnel money away from measures she thought were more beneficial, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"Her position is, 'Kill it,'" a federal scientist with knowledge of O'Toole's discussions about Generation 3 told the Times.

Napolitano was considering whether to approve plans for the five-year Generation 3 contract. Some officials within Homeland Security want the upgrade to proceed, but Napolitano hasn't indicated how she will decide, the Times said.

The chairmen of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its investigative panel have asked Homeland Security for emails or minutes of meetings in which O'Toole expressed her views on BioWatch. The department, citing its need to keep internal discussions confidential, has denied the investigators access to the documents, federal officials told the Times.

The current BioWatch system is unable to distinguish harmful materials from genetically similar but benign organisms in the environment, scientists who have worked with the system said.

The Generation 3 version of BioWatch would sift the air and report findings electronically, theoretically within four to six hours instead of 12 to 36 hours the current system requires. However, testers said the Generation 3 version still gives false readings and needs maintenance more often than its proposed schedule of at least a month.

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