Garza: BioWatch important and misunderstood

In an editorial for the Department of Homeland Security's blog, Alexander Garza, the chief medical officer of the department, attempted to set the record straight on the BioWatch program.

The BioWatch program is the first early detection and warning system for biological attacks in the United States. Since the program was announced in 2003, it has been criticized as being prone to false alarms or false positives. According to Garza, who also acts as the DHS's assistant secretary for health affairs, such claims are unsubstantiated.

"To date, more than seven million tests have been performed by dedicated public health lab officials and there has never been a false positive result," Garza said. "Out of these more than seven million tests, BioWatch has reported 37 instances in which naturally-occurring biological pathogens were detected from environmental sources. Many of the pathogens the BioWatch system is designed to detect occur naturally in the environment, such as the bacteria that causes anthrax, which has been used as a weapon, but is also found in nature."

Garza compared the BioWatch system to a home smoke detector going off for both burnt toast and substantial fires. BioWatch enables officials to look into an incident to determine if its a credible threat. The system may be able to give first responders the best possible lead time to respond to a biological event.

"The faster we detect an event, the more lives we can save by responding and delivering medical countermeasures," Garza said. "Looking forward, the scientists who operate the system will continue their work to improve BioWatch to keep the nation safe from any potential biological threats."