DHS officials outline BioWatch program at congressional hearing

Officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security outlined federal biosurveillance efforts on Tuesday during a House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications hearing.

Acting Assistant Secretary of the Office of Health Affairs Kathy Brinsfield and Science and Technology Undersecretary Reginald Brothers detailed the BioWatch program, a civilian-managed system deployed in 2003 to detect biological aerosol releases. It was also intended to function as an interface for local and state responders to jointly react to crises.

Brinsfield and Brothers also discussed efforts to improve the BioWatch program, which was directed by Congress in 2008 to find ways to increase coverage, lower costs and shorten operational timelines.

BioWatch began a technology acquisition process and eventually found ways to significantly reduce sample analysis time, but the technology was not adapted due to the cost involved.

Brinsfield and Brothers said that the BioWatch program would continue to find ways to produce faster results, and recommended that future needs be considered.

"In the coming years, we intend to focus our limited developmental resources on capacities to detect bioattacks in near-real time in order to enhance protective response actions," Brinsfield and Brothers said. "However, we will also have to consider future needs for detection of a wider range of potential threat agents. Faster, more detailed, and more reliable characterization of bioevents will be necessary to improve situational awareness and inform response"