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Pathogen alert upgrade languishes

| Tuesday, June 18, 2013, 7:03 p.m.

WASHINGTON — An alert system designed to detect deadly pathogens such as anthrax in New York and 33 other cities is stalled because lawmakers say they are concerned the next phase may not work.

BioWatch has been delayed and cost estimates have increased since the program started in 2003 under President George W. Bush in response to the post-Sept. 11, 2001 anthrax attacks. The Department of Homeland Security has spent more than $1 billion on BioWatch over 10 years and hired contractors such as Northrop Grumman Corp., of Falls Church, Va.

Department of Homeland Security officials want to upgrade to a system called Gen-3, which would use permanent boxes containing small, automated laboratories to detect pathogens and transmit the results to public health officials. Results would be available in as little as four hours after exposure, compared with 12 to 36 hours under the Gen-2 system, which requires technicians to manually retrieve samples.

“No procurement of this technology can proceed until after the secretary of Homeland Security certifies the science is proven,” U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican from Upper St. Clair, said on Tuesday at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. He said that would avoid a “boondoggle.”

Estimates of how much the next phase of the program may cost vary, according to a House Committee on Energy and Commerce memo last week. An internal department document from December 2011 projected spending as much as $7.7 billion over 15 years, while a Government Accountability Office report estimated costs would be $5.8 billion over 10 years. Those estimates were “based on technologies that failed” to meet operational requirements, the memo said.

“Currently there is no Gen-3,” Michael Walter, BioWatch program manager at the Department of Homeland Security, said at the hearing.

Northrop, the fifth-biggest government contractor on Bloomberg Government's list of the 200 largest federal contractors, has worked since at least 2009 to develop technology for BioWatch.

Murphy said that if the science underlying the next phase of BioWatch is proven, “DHS would be expected to pursue the multibillion dollar” program.

Last year, Congress cut $40 million from the program that Homeland Security department officials had requested. It required the department's secretary to “certify” the technology is effective before the agency can begin procuring the next phase of the system, according to a memo.

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the top Democrat on the committee, said in a statement BioWatch was “implemented too hastily” and that delaying the next phase will “protect taxpayers.”

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