House committee requests BioWatch transparency

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee recently requested that the Department of Homeland Security open the books on the BioWatch program and explain why it requires $3.1 billion in additional funding.

BioWatch, the nation's system for detecting deadly pathogens, came under fire this year for stories of repeated false alarms from New York City to Los Angeles. While health officials were asked by the DHS to keep their misgivings about the program mostly secret, congressional investigators want to find out if the technology works and if BioWatch is worth the money, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Government records detail more than 100 false alarms and the inability to reliably detect low levels of pathogens like smallpox, plague and anthrax. The system is also not able to distinguish between certain pathogens that are genetically similar, but benign.

The committee seeks internal documents that demonstrate BioWatch's performance and the private comments of DHS's top science and technology advisor, Tara O'Toole. O'Toole recommended that Generation 3, the latest upgrade for BioWatch, not be used. The new upgrade would cost approximately $3.1 billion to deploy over its first five years.

Stephen Prior, a George Mason University microbiologist, said that scaling back the program could prove risky.

"If somebody cancels the program, and a week later there's a release, they'll never, ever recover from making that decision," Prior said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "If they don't make that decision, they can't be wrong."

Donald A. Henderson, an epidemiologist and anti-terrorism advisor, said he has yet to see scientific justification for the BioWatch system.

"It has never stood the test of rationality," Henderson said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "This whole concept is just preposterous."

Arthur Kellermann, a public health researchers who studied BioWatch from 2007 to 2009, said the money spent on BioWatch could have been used for training and equipment. He also said that the false alarms could lead to complacency, the Los Angeles Times reports.

"After you hear a certain amount of car alarms in your neighborhood, you stop worrying about them," Kellermann said, according to the Los Angeles Times.