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DHS behind schedule in developing biosurveillance programs

The Homeland Security Department is behind schedule on developing two initiatives to prevent and detect biological threats, according to department officials.

Comment on this article in The Forum.A program to integrate information on diseases naturally occurring in the environment or those caused by a terrorist attack and another to sniff the air for pathogens that could cause severe illness are delayed, top DHS officials told the House Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity and Science and Technology Subcommittee on Wednesday.

The National Biosurveillance Integration Center, which plans to assimilate information on biological events from federal, state and tribal agencies to find patterns of disease, still must complete certain tasks before its mandated opening of Sept. 30. The center will collect information on biological threats such as a naturally occurring outbreak of diseases including bird flu or the West Nile virus or terrorist threats such as an anthrax attack.

"The nation continues to face the risk of a major biological event," said Robert Hooks, deputy assistant secretary for weapons of mass destruction and biodefense at DHS' office of health affairs." It's incredibly difficult to predict and prevent a biological attack. Having an early warning system in place is critical."

Hooks said the center would provide an early recognition of a biological event, which would make a quicker response more possible. He said the center is negotiating with 12 agencies to exchange information. Eventually state and local agencies will use the center to share information.

The 2007 9/11 Commission Act required the center to be operational by Sept. 30, but it is unclear what capabilities the center will have by then, said William Jenkins, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office.

DHS has had difficulty completing elemental tasks for the programs , including defining the center's capabilities, formalizing agreements with other agencies regarding staffing and finances, and completing the training of employees on an upgraded network. The center has signed agreements of understanding with only half of the 12 agencies that it has approached and only one agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has detailed staff to the program. In addition, training of employees on a system delivered in April will not be completed until early 2009.

The second biosurveillance initiative is the BioWatch program, which tests the air for threats. DHS planned to begin testing the program in April, but the department now saystests will start in April 2009.

DHS' Directorate of Science Technology is developing detectors that will replace beginning in 2010 the existing technology. The new detectors, dubbed Generation 3.0, automatically will test air samples for biological agents, unlike the current system, which requires DHS workers to collect the samples from the systems, which are located in 30 cities, and take them to laboratories for analysis.

Homeland Security estimated the new technology would reduce the time it takes to confirm a biological threat by between four to 30 hours. The advanced systems also will test for more biological agents. DHS will begin testing the new detectors in April 2009, one year later than initially planned, according to GAO.

The department is developing an interim solution that automatically will analyze air samples, but only for agents the program currently tests for. If the interim detectors work, DHS plans to purchase more than 100.

Frances Downes, director of the Bureau of Laboratories of the Michigan Community Health Department, said DHS has not provided supplies and equipment to state laboratories that test samples for the BioWatch program. "The BioWatch program has been variously described by my fellow state and local laboratory directors as a parasite to the public health laboratory and squatters in valuable public health laboratory space," she said. "I am hard pressed to disagree."

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