DHS cancels $6 billon program to detect bioweapons, with no Plan B

Wednesday - 6/11/2014, 4:36am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

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Six weeks ago, amid cost overruns and technological miscalculations, the Department of Homeland Security canceled a $5.8 billion program intended to upgrade the biological weapon detection systems it deployed in the aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attacks in cities thorough America.

While DHS says it has fixed the management problems that ultimately doomed that program and several other large acquisitions over the past decade, how the department will screen for bioterrorist attacks going forward remains far from clear.

The Government Accountability Office stated the April cancellation of the BioWatch 3 program was the inescapable result of DHS eventually following its own acquisition policies, and if it had done so from the start of the program in 2008, things likely would have been very different.

DHS never conducted a clear-headed analysis of alternatives that took into account the costs and benefits of the technology it ultimately settled on, because DHS components already had reached an internal consensus on the bioweapons system they wanted to deploy, not bothering to take into account whether it was affordable or achievable.

As a result, the program's estimated costs ballooned from $2.1 billion to $5.8 billion, and by 2014, the technology still wasn't mature enough to send to the field.

To date, DHS says it has actually expended only $61 million on BioWatch 3, and officials told the House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday that they are moving quickly to come up with a new acquisition plan. But since DHS now has decided that the technology it has spent the past six years building is unworkable and unaffordable, the immediate future of the department's bioweapons detection program is surrounded by uncertainty.

"For years, the focus has been on developing the generation three system. But now that there is no generation three, there are new questions about the performance and maintainability of the current system that need to be answered," said Chris Currie, GAO's acting director for homeland security and justice issues. "DHS officials told us that some generation two equipment is nearing the end of its useful life and will need to be replaced as early as next year, but it's not yet clear how the current system will be replaced or upgraded. And while generation two has been used in the field for more than a decade now, information about its technical capabilities, including its detection capabilities, is actually pretty limited."

New detection process took longer

DHS first deployed the now-aging equipment from the second generation of BioWatch to 30 cities in the wake of the 2001 anthrax attacks, which only is capable of detecting five different biological agents.

The delay between when a biological agent is caught in one of the current system's filters and when it is verified as a legitimate hazard at an offsite lab can range between 12 and 36 hours.

Still, even that represents an improvement over government capabilities to respond to biological attacks before the system's deployment, because officials wouldn't know an incident was underway until people began to exhibit symptoms, often several days after exposure.

BioWatch 3 was supposed to cut the detection time to just a few hours, and according to an analysis of alternatives DHS eventually commissioned the Institute for Defense Analyses to conduct in 2012, the technology the department was pursuing was in fact faster, because the equipment would analyze pathogen samples on-the-spot, without requiring workers to drive them to an offsite lab.

But the analysis also showed the "lab-in-a-box" concept was even worse than the current system when it came to identifying a broad variety of bioweapons.

"Autonomous identification has a slightly higher life cycle cost estimate than environmental collection. And while it achieves the fastest detections, when it detects, it only detects, on average, approximately half the number of attacks detected by environmental collection," said Dr. Deena Disraelly, a leader of the IDA study. "The result is increased numbers of casualties due to large numbers of missed attacks."

When DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson put BioWatch 3 on the chopping block in April, he also ordered officials to draft reports on lessons learned from the program's failure and the way ahead within two weeks. Those reports have not yet been sent to Capitol Hill nor released to the public, but officials told the committee that they do exist on paper and are in the midst of the agency's internal review process.

Turning the corner

The DHS Science and Technology (S&T) directorate led the effort to develop BioWatch 3, and according to GAO, its demise was at least partially attributable to the fact that as recently as 2012, the department had no unified policy that governed its research and development programs.