America protected from bioweapons by massive technology system

Scientists at federal research labs are defending the United States against the threat of biological weapons through the development of a nationwide system designed to check the air for germs such as anthrax and smallpox.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Tom Slezak and other government researchers began work on a pathogen early warning system known as Biowatch, the Associated Press reports. The Biowatch system is currently deployed in approximately 30 cities across the country, located in secret near high-profile targets such as subways and stadiums.

Biowatch sucks in city air through filters that are collected every day by technicians and then tested for the DNA of dangerous bioagents. The program is designed to alert authorities in the event of the release of deadly germs before patients show up sick at hospitals.

Many of the system’s details are kept secret in order to keep potential terrorists guessing, including the exact number of monitors located in each city as well as the pathogens they test for, the AP reports. Officials admit, however, that Washington and New York are heavily monitored. According to Slezak, Biowatch covers 80 percent of the U.S. population.

The system has raised several alerts about the presence of potentially harmful microbes since it was installed. Biowatch detected tularemia the day after a 2005 anti-war protest on the Washington Mall. Further tests revealed the germs to be naturally occurring.

"We have to be able to make millions of measurements and never have a single false positive measurement," David Rakestraw, the head of the weapons of mass destruction countermeasures program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, said, the AP reports.

Not everyone is convinced Biowatch is a silver bullet. The system is extremely labor intensive and expensive to maintain. According to budget analysts at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the government has spent more than $500 million dollars on the program.

"What we basically deployed were glorified vacuum cleaners," Penrose "Parney" Albright said, according to the AP. Albright oversaw the system’s deployment as the Department of Homeland Security's director of anti-weapons of mass destruction research and development under President George W. Bush.

Albright said that the system can be streamlined by greater use of technological developments. By relying on chips in the detectors themselves, the system should be capable of testing for more than 3,000 types of germs, as opposed to the small handful now sought. Scientists would then be alerted to test samples that came back positive.

Many believe Biowatch should only be seen as one part of a broader campaign to protect the country from bioterror.

"It's not all that we need," Frances Downes, the director of public health laboratories for Michigan said, the AP reports. "We can't assume it's a safety blanket and it's covering us and we're always going to know about a (bioterror) attack."