Researchers validate air sampling techniques to battle bioterrorism

A researcher at Saint Louis University recently found that the air and surface sampling techniques being used by the U.S. government are effective in fighting bioterrorism and potentially saving lives.

Alexander Garza, the former chief medical officer at the DHS, worked with a team of researchers from the Los Alamos National Lab to review data from a series of experiments simulating a bioterrorism attack against the Pentagon. The study, which was published in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, showed the effectiveness of the BioWatch system in detecting the simulated biological agents in the environment.

"We were able to detect the biological organisms released several kilometers from where the agent was originally released," Garza said. "We were not entirely surprised by the results. Since all of the modeling that had been done to date showed that air samplers should be able to detect these types of attack, what was missing was empirical evidence showing that these systems would work in real world conditions. We now have that evidence."

Garza said the traditional way to detect if someone was exposed to a biological agent is to wait until the individual becomes symptomatic. Once the individual is infected with a biological agent, it is likely the patient will die, potentially leading to significant casualties during a large-scale attack.

"This experiment confirmed that a biological attack could be detected earlier using air sampling which means public health would have more time to respond," Garza said.

Garza said the detection cycle, which currently takes between 12 and 36 hours, must be improved to produce results in a shorter period of time.

"If we can detect a dangerous pathogen in the environment at an earlier stage, we can quickly start planning the response procedure for it like distributing antibiotics," Garza said. "The sooner we pick up clues, the sooner we can act and save more lives."