A House subcommittee is set to examine the program Tuesday, with representatives from the DHS and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control set to discuss the system's future. “The BioWatch Program is the only federally—managed, locally—operated nationwide bio—surveillance system designed to detect select aerosolized biological agents,” says DHS spokesman SY Lee. “BioWatch provides public health officials with a warning of a biological agent release, before potentially exposed individuals develop symptoms of illness.”
Against the backdrop of lukewarm reviews, however, a planned expansion of BioWatch, Generation 2.5, was canceled in fall 2008. The next proposed stage of the system, Generation 3, will be under discussion at the hearing. The system as it stands now is designed so that the time between sample collection and laboratory results indicating potential biological aerosol release is between 10 to 36 hours. With future iterations of the program the hope is to get initial analysis of the samples wrapped up within six hours. For Generation 3, DHS is looking into including autonomous biodetection technology to help eliminate the need for manual filter retrieval and analysis. Still, confirmatory tests would still be required raising questions about how much time would be saved and if it would result in faster response times and disbursement of emergency drugs that could help avoid human sickness or death.
At the very least it may help preliminary results get out faster. “The difference it would make,” says Bob England, director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, which covers the Phoenix metropolitan area, “is you would get your first inkling that something might be going on hours earlier. That would give you that much more time to get people together and ready to evaluate the confirmatory results when they do come back so it does make the response earlier.”
In the current fiscal environment there is also concern from some public health offices that dollars allocated to detecting biological threats through BioWatch may be competing with the ones needed to provide complementary information to help detect threats—such as picking up any uptick in certain symptoms at hospitals through robust health surveillance. According to National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), 59 percent of local health departments rely exclusively on federal funding to support their emergency preparedness programs. As cuts have been made to public health emergency response in recent years, says Jack Herrmann, senior advisor and chief of public health preparedness at NACCHO, that makes it more difficult to conduct consistent public health monitoring and create optimal response plans.