Monday, September 14, 2009


The Biowatch Program was founded in 2001 after the anthrax bioterrorism scare. Without totally understanding the biology of anthrax, security officials understood that currently the only means of detection was through diagnosis of symptoms, by which point it would probably be too late for the patient. As such, they decided to focus their newfound homeland security budget on early "pathogen sensors". It functions through a series of filters run by the Environmental Protection Agency, who then send results to the CDC, limiting the impact of any 'early warning' system through bureaucratic delays. Concerns about BioWatch's efficacy include gaps in its coverage, and worries that it may not detect the presence of bioterrorist agents in large, polluted cities, or underground or indoors. Some municipal officials believe that the presence of detectors in some cities may shift the focus of terrorists to undercovered cities. There has only been one positive reading from a BioWatch system in Houston, TX in 2003, during which tularemia was detected. However, it was unclear whether this pathogen had always existed in the environment.
The major flaw in the program is the communication gap between the intelligence community who are reluctant to share information and the public health leaders who need to act quickly on intelligence received in order to save lives. The differing focuses of the two groups lead to their response to the problem in different ways; the FBI is concerned with national security and the terrorism threat, doctors are concerned with the health of their communities. According to the Department of Homeland Security, "Since much information on BioWatch has not been released to the public, it is difficult to evaluate criticisms of the system". However, this philosophy seems like throwing an anvil on the criticism, delegitimizing and refusing to respond to it.

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