U.S. Bioterrorism-Detection Program Is Unreliable, Report Finds
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, there are concerns about possible gaps in this country's bioterror detection system. In a report released today, the government accountability office says homeland security can't really tell how well the system works. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: After the threat of bioterrorism became real when five Americans were killed and 20 injured by letters containing anthrax spores in 2001, the government moved to set up a system to detect a widescale bioterror attack. Called BioWatch, the system involved aerosol collectors deployed in 30 U.S. cities - on top of buildings, in subways and at airports. Filters from each of the detectors are removed daily and checked for the presence of airborne pathogens, a process that can take up to 36 hours.
Homeland security wants to upgrade the current system known as Gentoo to a newer model that would take much less time to determine whether a bioterrorist attack was underway. But the GAO report says it's not clear how well the devices work now because Homeland Security's testing is inadequate, and so it makes little sense to upgrade the unproven system. Timothy Persons is the GAO's lead scientist and coauthor of the report.
TIMOTHY PERSONS: The department does not have reliable information about the technical capabilities of Gentoo to detect an attack and therefore doesn't have the basis for an informed cost-benefit analysis about whether to upgrade the system or whether to move to some new technology.
NAYLOR: To BioWatch system has been plagued by false positives totaling 149 between 2003 and 2014, according to the GAO. In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security says it does not agree with all of the GAO's characterizations of the BioWatch program but is implementing its recommendations just the same. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.