Arena Requiring Rapid Response Left Unprepared


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“BioWatch’s limited footprint puts the Nation at a disadvantage to timely identify and respond to potential biological attacks,” warns a recent report by the US Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.

DHS’ Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction BioWatch, the US program responsible for detecting and responding to threats of bioterrorism lacks detection equipment in more than half the country and was unable to spot multiple biological agents known as possible threats, according to the report.

Bioterrorism is a form of terrorism that is the deliberate, or intentional, release of a biological agent to cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants, explains the report. “Contrary to a chemical or nuclear attack, bioterrorism creates challenges because the public health impact of a biological attack can unfold gradually over time. Even a small amount of a biological agent released in or near a population center can result in catastrophic casualties, as well as economic and social instability throughout the United States. For these reasons, the speed and accuracy of biological detection and response has a direct impact on the number of people who could become ill or die.”

If the US does not improve the program, its ability to prepare, detect, and respond to a potential bioterrorism attack is impeded, which could result in significant loss of human life, the IG said.

BioWatch claims to operate a nationwide aerosol detection system, but the IG said it “does not operate a nationwide early warning system.” The OIG found that the program had equipment to detect bioterrorism agents in 22 of 50 states, leaving 56% of the U.S. without coverage.

The IG also said BioWatch only monitors 6 of 14 biological agents known to be threats because it has not updated its detection capabilities.

BioWatch left equipment exposed and unguarded at 34 of 35 detection sites across the country, meaning the tools could be disarmed in a security breach. “Until [Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office] addresses these information sharing weaknesses, the Nation’s readiness to respond to a potential bioterrorism attack that may result in significant loss of life is at risk,” the IG office said.

The BioWatch Program was formed under the George W. Bush administration in 2003 after numerous anthrax attacks against news media offices and members of Congress killed five people and infected several others in 2001, according to