Officials respond critique of BioWatch program

Public health officials are coming to the defense of the federal BioWatch program after a newspaper investigation questioned the agency's value.

In July, the Los Angeles Times published an investigative article into the program, alleging that it is more trouble that it's worth, CIDRAP News reports.

The story, written by David Willman, said that the program is responsible for 56 disruptive "false alarms" in which airborne pathogens detected were not actually a real danger. The story also states that the system is likely to miss a real attack, unless the concentration of the dangerous pathogen was very high. The story said local and state health officials do not trust the program, CIDRAP News reports.

Officials who have worked with the program said that there is truth to the story, but that the program should be improved and not terminated.

"From a local perspective, the information and issues raised in the article are not new to us. These are things we've heard consistently over the years from local health departments," Jack Herrmann, a senior advisor and chief of public health preparedness at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said, CIDRAP News reports. "However, I think it's important that we don't kind of bash the system in the absence of any other technology that's better. More important, I think we should focus on what we need to develop in human and technological resources that can provide us with timely and accurate data that can detect the presence of potentially life-threatening pathogens."

The BioWatch program operates air-monitoring stations with filters that are collected and tested daily to see if they contain dangerous pathogens. It takes 10 to 36 hours to detect the pathogens.

Among the concerns brought up in the Times report are frequent false alarms, the inability to detect low concentrations of pathogens, lack of confidence in the program from local public health officials, and a diverting of funding in other areas of pathogen detection and prevention.

The DHS has rejected the charge that BioWatch has caused false alarms. Alexander Garza, the chief medical officer for DHS, said BioWatch detects regular occurrences of the pathogens in nature and relies on experts to decide if the occurrence represents an emergency. He likened the system to a smoke detector, which can detect a fire, but the occurrence of burnt toast, as well.

DHS officials also assert that state and local officials have confidence in the program and that they have received good feedback about the BioWatch program.