House committee demands HHS BioWatch documents

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee recently complained that they have not been given access to documents held by two senior federal scientists who are known to have been skeptical of BioWatch, the national system for detecting biological attacks.

The documents are of interest to investigators, in part because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security plans to upgrade the system at a cost of $3.1 billion in its first five years. DHS recently issued a draft request for proposals and announced its plans to hold an industry day for prospective contractors, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The committee wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius requesting emails and other documents from the scientists, who work for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An HHS spokeswoman said the department is looking into the matter.

The scientists' views of BioWatch are known to be critical and diverge from those voiced by DHS representatives who have consistently denied serious problems with the system. CDC would play a critical role if a biological attack were detected by the system. The agency would act as liaison between public health laboratories and be responsible for distributing medical countermeasures, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The Energy and Commerce Committee began its investigation of the program after a July Los Angeles Times article described concerns over its shortcomings, including false alarms and tests showing the system could not be relied on.