BioWatch funding increase sought

BioWatch fact sheet

The $78 million increase in the Homeland Security Department's fiscal 2005 budget request for the BioWatch program should significantly enhance cities' ability to detect biohazards, but new technologies could allow officials to use that money even more appropriately, according to the head of the department's Science and Technology Directorate.

BioWatch is a joint hazardous materials detection and analysis program among DHS, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Extensive manpower is needed to collect and analyze the information the sensors detect, Charles McQueary, undersecretary for science and technology at DHS, testified today before the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Homeland Security.

Almost 70 percent of the money in the program's budget goes to pay employees.

Should BioWatch get the additional money, the directorate would be able to expand the program to other cities, and, more importantly, deploy more sensors and provide enhanced coverage for the approximately 30 cities currently in the program, McQueary said. This is critical because in a biological attack or accident, time is the primary factor in determining the impact, he said.

However, the longer-term goal is to create a more technologically advanced system. "The perfect system would be one in which the sensor makes a detection, performs an instant analysis and sends a signal back," he said.

Technologies are in development, but none will be ready to be deployed for several years, McQueary said. "I do believe the issue is more of an engineering problem than the necessity to have a scientific breakthrough," he said.

CDC officials' work to create a national system to share health and disease information is also critical to any biological alert initiative, McQueary said.

A recent simulation by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory using San Francisco public health organizations demonstrates that officials are often wary of declaring a biological emergency because of a fear of being incorrect due to incomplete or misread information, he said. That shows that agencies must work harder to gather and analyze medical data, he said.

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