By David Willman
Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee and a senior Republican colleague voiced grave doubts Thursday about the viability of BioWatch, the nation's system for detecting biological attacks that has been plagued by false alarms.
Committee members endorsed a new report from the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, that bluntly faulted the Department of Homeland Security's management of BioWatch and recommended that contracting for a multibillion-dollar overhaul be halted while plans are reevaluated.
Lawmakers reacted skeptically to assurances that Homeland Security officials would indeed reassess the next phase of BioWatch, called Generation 3.
The author of the GAO report, William O. Jenkins Jr., told the hearing held by two House subcommittees that it would be "somewhat contradictory" for Homeland Security officials to move ahead with contracting decisions without first completing the promised reassessment of Generation 3.
The current version of BioWatch relies on air-collection units whose filters are removed and tested daily for pathogens. Generation 3 would be automated, with so-called labs in a box.
To date, BioWatch has cost taxpayers about $1 billion. Generation 3 would cost an estimated $3.1 billion during its first five years of operation.
Automating BioWatch has been promoted as a way to detect an attack more quickly, perhaps enabling authorities to dispense medicines or take other actions in time to save lives.
The existing system has been deployed in more than 30 U.S. cities and at big events, including Super Bowls. Its repeated false alarms have triggered tense deliberations over whether to order mass evacuations, distribute emergency medicines or shut down major venues. In each case, health authorities decided, sometimes with great trepidation, to disregard BioWatch. No evidence of an intentional release of a pathogen has ever been found.
Despite all that has been spent on BioWatch, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) said in remarks distributed at Thursday's hearing, "we still do not have an early-warning system that can quickly and efficiently detect the release of a harmful biological or chemical compound in our major cities."
"We must understand that that we are on Generation 3 because Generations 1 and 2 did not work," said Thompson, the senior Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee. At this point, he said, "it is time to reconsider the likelihood of the risk [of a biological attack] and adjust our priorities."
Another Democrat, Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.), blamed the Obama administration -- specifically, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who she said "should be more involved" in confronting problems with BioWatch. Clarke added that "a huge amount of money" had been spent "to no productive end."
"GAO believes the recommendations should be enacted before [Homeland Security] proceeds with the acquisition" of Generation 3, Clarke said, "and I agree with GAO."
Clarke and others cited recent articles by The Times detailing deficiencies with both the existing BioWatch system and the prototypes intended for Generation 3. The Times has reported that BioWatch would be unlikely to detect an actual attack and that false alarms have been common since its initial deployment in 2003. Generation 3 prototypes showed problems with durability and low sensitivity, according to lab and field test results.
"The concerns raised by the stories in the Los Angeles Times this summer and the GAO report released yesterday mark an important opportunity to stop and reevaluate Gen-3 and assess where BioWatch fits into our federal biosurveillance efforts," said Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach).
Some of the Democrats' criticisms were echoed by Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (R-Fla.), who co-chaired the hearing.
"How can we proceed with procurement of a new system when we don't fully understand the capabilities of the current system?" Bilirakis asked. "Where is the cost-benefit analysis that proves this next-generation system would be a sufficient improvement over the existing system? Where is the analysis of alternatives?"
Homeland Security's presidentially appointed chief medical officer, Dr. Alexander Garza, attended the hearing but did not say when the department might proceed with contracting for Generation 3. In the meantime, he said, officials would turn to "an independent organization to conduct" a cost-benefit analysis.