BioWatch Program manager testifies before House of Representatives

The preparedness capabilities of the BioWatch Program are necessary parts of a U.S. biodefense posture, the program's manager said on Tuesday.

Mike Walter, the manager of the Office of Health Affairs BioWatch Program, made the remarks during his testimony to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The testimony came during a hearing entitled "Continuing Concerns Over BioWatch and the Surveillance of Bioterrorism."

Walter said the benefits of the BioWatch Program give public health decision makers more time and more options to mitigate a bioterrorist event.

"The early detection, planning, preparedness, exercising and training capabilities provided by the BioWatch Program are essential parts of a biodefense posture," Walter said. "Early detection is critical to the successful treatment of affected populations and provides public health decision makers more time - and thereby more options - in responding to, mitigating, and recovering from a bioterrorist event. If a bioagent is detected and assessed to be the result of an act of bioterrorism and/or a threat to public health, prophylactic treatment can be started prior to the widespread onset of symptoms resulting in more lives saved."

Walter provided an overview of the BioWatch Program, including how it uses a federal, state and local partnership, provides of tools for preparedness and is developing robust quality assurance.

Walter said the Department of Homeland Security is assessing new technologies to shorten decision time in relation to bioagent detection.

"The department has considered automated detection because of the potential for this type of technology to shorten the time to detect by eliminating the need for manual filter retrieval and analysis through continuous collection and analysis capability," Walter said. "The results of this automated analysis would be transmitted virtually to public health officials. With automated detection, the time to detect could be reduced from 12-36 hours to four to six hours."

Walter said his office continues to believe that a comprehensive surveillance approach like the BioWatch Program should include environmental surveillance, clinical surveillance and point-of-care diagnostics.