Reinforcing my observations in an article I wrote in September 2020 about America’s failed biodefense system, a new report shows that the situation has not improved. Even after the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. ability to detect and warn of a bio attack remains broken.
After the 2003 domestic anthrax attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created a program to help detect biological weapons in the United States. Unfortunately, according to a report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for DHS, the nationwide early warning program, called BioWatch, appears to be failing.
AP reported that the DHS audit found that BioWatch “provided protection in less than half the states and couldn’t detect many of the known threats.” AP added that BioWatch:
…was capable of detecting only six of 14 biological agents known to be potential threats. It also left detection equipment exposed and unguarded.
Contrary to its stated mission, OIG’s report said, “BioWatch does not operate a nationwide early warning system,” since it has detection capability in just 22 of the 50 states.
Managed by the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMDO) at DHS, the program was “created in response to the deadly mailing of anthrax-laced envelopes to news media and government offices two years earlier.” As noted by AP, BioWatch is intended to:
…supplement existing surveillance programs, BioWatch consists of air sampling equipment and lab facilities around the nation. It was meant to reduce the time it takes to recognize an attack by monitoring for known biological agents. It costs about $80 million per year to run, according to previous government reports.
Yet, it appears to be failing. And this isn’t the first critical report.
AP writes that: “Previous reviews in recent years have faulted the program’s computer network security and said it lacked reliable data about its capabilities for detecting an attack, among other problems.”
The system reportedly relies on winds blowing in an optimal direction and can take up to 36 hours to warn of a potential attack.
Tom Ridge, former Homeland Security Secretary, and former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, co-chairs of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, have called for BioWatch to be replaced with a better system. But DHS believes it can make the program work.
David Richardson, an assistant secretary at DHS who runs the CWMDO, reports AP, wrote in a letter accompanying the report that BioWatch is integral to the office’s mission:
and serves as the department’s best tool to effectively prepare for, detect and respond to bioterrorism threats.
Meanwhile, CWMDO is working to correct all the reported failures.
AP noted that the “office said it would work with the organizations that host the equipment to improve security and planned to ‘enhance’ biological detection capabilities.:
CWMDO also plans to run a full-scale exercise for later this month and said it would share the information with other involved organizations by April.
Let’s see what that exercise shows, and whether the system can be fixed, or a new system is needed to replace it.