Details about BioWatch come to light

The recent discovery of tularemia in Columbus, Ohio's air by germ warfare monitors that were part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's BioWatch program has revealed several of the program's secrets.

According to officials, more than 30 U.S. cities - including Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati - are protected by the BioWatch program.

A Homeland Security survey conducted by the National Academy of Sciences revealed that BioWatch has detected dozens of instances of dangerous germs in the atmosphere of several cities since its inception in 2003, including tularemia in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Houston and Washington D.C.

Scientists at the Academy who reviewed the BioWatch program, reports, found that the discovery of such increased levels of dangerous germs, called a BioWatch Actionable Result, is meaningless unless a plan is place for local health agencies to to determine any danger.

"The committee finds the term to be misleading because it sees a BAR alone as unlikely to be a sufficient basis for public-health action," quotes the report as saying.

Public health officials should not only rely on BioWatch, the report says, as traditional monitoring reports for disease and symptoms do not rely on as many potentialities as BioWatch, including, the report says, ""If a large-scale aerosol attack occurs in a locality where BioWatch is deployed, if an air sampler lies in the path of the release and if the pathogen used is one of those included in the BioWatch assays."

The first BioWatch alert, which took place in Houston in 2003 and involved tularemia, saw local agencies unable to determine how to proceed and, a 2005 report by the Inspector General for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said, trading in unhelpful and incorrect information. Three weeks were needed to determine that there was no attack.