Anthrax alert system at risk as cost estimate hits $5.7 billion

Anthrax alert system at risk as cost estimate hits $5.7 billion

By Carol Wolf, Published: June 18

Funding for BioWatch, an early warning system to detect deadly pathogens in 30 U.S. cities, may be in jeopardy after cost estimates surged to $5.7 billion, six times the initial assessment.

The Department of Homeland Security wants to open bidding before October on the next phase of the program, which monitors the air for pathogens such as anthrax and smallpox.

The five-year contract for as much as $3.1 billion would upgrade the system to automatically transmit collected data to laboratories, eliminating the present manual handling.

BioWatch has suffered cost overruns and delays since then-President George W. Bush, prompted by the post-Sept. 11, 2001, anthrax attacks, started it in 2003. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), chairman of the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over BioWatch, says he wants assurances that costs are under control and has asked the Government Accountability Office to analyze the proposed spending.

“The program could find itself in danger of being cut back or completely scrapped if law­makers determine that it’s becoming a major and costly acquisition failure,’’ Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, a partner with Monument Policy Group, a Washington-based consulting firm, said in a telephone interview. Herrera-Flanigan was staff director for the House Homeland Security Committee from 2005 through 2008.

Companies with investments at stake include Northrop Grumman, which has worked since at least 2009 to develop technology for BioWatch.

BioWatch was developed after it took more than two weeks to identify what was killing U.S. citizens during the anthrax attacks in 2001, said Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor at Rutgers University’s Newark branch, and author of the book, “The Anthrax Letters.’’

Letters laced with anthrax were sent through the mail and resulted in five deaths, including two postal workers and a newspaper photo editor. Another 17 people became ill. No one has been charged in the attacks, Chris Allen, a Federal Bureau of Investigation spokesman, said by telephone.

“Before BioWatch, we were all canaries in a coal mine,’’ Cole said in a phone interview. “Only after people dropped dead or became ill did we understand that a pathogen was floating around.’’

August report

The federal government has spent about $800 million on BioWatch since 2003, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the subcommittee overseeing the program, said at a March 29 hearing.

He and Bilirakis both questioned the cost of upgrading BioWatch. Lawmakers are “increasingly concerned about the viability of this developing technology and also about the department’s ability to deploy it on time and within budget,’’ Bilirakis said at the hearing of the Homeland Security subcommittee on emergency preparedness, response and communications.

The GAO report, due in August, “will not be considered lightly, especially given our country’s current fiscal situation and the price tag for the BioWatch program,’’ he said in an e-mail message last week.

The estimated lifetime cost of the program rose from $921 million in 2010 to $2.1 billion the following year, according to a June 2010 report by the GAO, citing figures from the Office of Management and Budget.

The total price may reach $5.7 billion, according to a 2011 report by LMI, a McLean-based consulting firm hired by the Department of Homeland Security.

The $2.1 billion and $5.7 billion “cannot be validly compared,’’ Noah Bartolucci, a BioWatch spokesman, said in an e-mail.

The $5.7 billion figure covers a longer time period — 17 years, vs. 10 years — and program planners “assigned no confidence level’’ to the $2.1 billion estimate, he said.

BioWatch currently uses canisters that must be installed manually and taken to a lab for analysis. It can take 48 hours to get the results. That delay could mean lost lives in an emergency, Michael Walter, program manager for BioWatch, said in a phone interview.

Automated labs

The upgraded system, called Gen-3, would use permanent boxes containing small, automated laboratories that would detect pathogens and then securely transmit the information to local health departments. Results would be available in as little as three hours, Walter said.

BioWatch is installed at undisclosed locations in cities that include Boston, Chicago and Houston. The system is set up to detect pathogens indoors and out, Walter said.

In one incident, after an antiwar protest in 2005, BioWatch filters in Washington picked up traces of a bacterium that causes a potentially deadly infection called tularemia, according to the Department of Homeland Security and city health department. No cases of illness were reported. Health officials later said the protesters may have kicked up soil contaminated with harmless quantities of the bacterium.

Northrop, based in Falls Church, tested its BioWatch technology in 2010 with an $8.4 million contract. In all,Northrop has received about $18 million for BioWatch from the federal government, Yolanda Murphy, a company spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

The company has experience overseeing the U.S. Postal Service’s biodetection system, said Dave Tilles, Northrop’s director of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and enhanced conventional weapons defense systems.

“We understand what it takes to develop, manufacture and support automated biodetection systems,’’ he said in a telephone interview. “We think the technology for BioWatch Gen-3 is ready, and we hope that Congress moves ahead with this important mission.’’

As the costs of BioWatch rise, they will need to be weighed against the system’s intended benefits, Walter said.

“From a public health standpoint we have to ask if this program is going to be useful in reducing casualties and will it be an improvement over the current system,’’ he said. “How do you deal with the value of human life and human suffering?’’

— Bloomberg Government

With assistance from Brian Friel in Washington.

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