Bio Botch?

Experts doubt high-tech monitoring can save Seattle from bioattacks.

Forget the duct tape. Hold the Cipro. Tom Ridge and co. have a better way to ward off the anthrax, smallpox, and plague X that the evil ones are waiting to waft down our lungsone with a personal presidential imprimatur. Three months ago, in his State of the Union address, President Bush announced "the nation's first early warning network of sensors to detect biological attack." Even as he spoke, this novel system, snappily branded "Bio-Watch," was rolling out in its first market, terrorism-shocked New York City. And its creatorsthe Department of Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, and various other federal and state agencies and private labswere scrambling to get it up in eight to 20 other target cities, including Seattle.

Bio-Watch is the biodefense equivalent of the continental missile defense formerly known as Star Warsan overarching umbrella promising automatic, predictable defense against unpredictable threats. And like missile defense, it's going ahead despite major technical uncertainties and deep doubts among independent experts about whether it can work.

Just determining how it would work is hard enough. Good luck learning anything from Homeland Security (HS), a department so secure that its Web pages and press releases disclose no telephone numbers. And HS has laid strict rules as to what other agencies can divulge.

"We're only discussing Bio-Watch in very general terms," Bob Bostock, EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman's assistant for homeland security, explains patiently. "We are not confirming where we are deploying it or how many monitors we will use. We're not saying how much we're spending on itpeople could extrapolate from that." Nor will he talk about where samples will be analyzed, how they'll be tested, or whether monitors will be placed only in core cities or across metropolitan areas. Nor about what bioweapons they'll test for, beyond anthrax and smallpox. "We're screening for a number of pathogens," says Bostock.

Bostock and others do acknowledge that the monitors are the size of small suitcases, which suggests they'll be placed on rooftops rather than high poles. Their superfine air filters will be removed and tested every 24 hours. Mike Ragan, the state Department of Ecology's ambient air monitoring coordinator, says the new equipment is installed, though not yet operating, in Seattle.

Originally, Bio-Watch was supposed to retrofit the EPA's existing network of 4,000 air-pollution monitors to screen for pathogens. This drew heat for two reasons: It would undercut monitoring for pollution (which still kills many more Americans than terrorism has). And, as Ragan says, "If I told you we were using existing sites, people would look them up on our Web site." Now, Bostock says Bio-Watch will use only new, specially designed monitors.

Other shortcomings are harder to patch. Bio-Watch will only catch outdoor bioattacks, and only large ones within the monitors' range. "A biological or chemical weapon must reach a certain concentration to be detected," says John Cohen, president of the Maryland-based security-technology firm PSComm. "The type of dispersal mechanism you'd have to use would be very conspicuousa plane or a bomb." If we need a high-tech system to tell us that a crop duster buzzed Fifth Avenue yesterday, we are in trouble.

And outdoors isn't where terrorists would likely strike. Previous chemical and biological attacks have hit subways and salad barsbusy, confined sites offering maximum bang for the toxic buck.

The early buzz was that initial rollout using existing monitors would cost $1 million per city, plus another million a year for operation. Comprehensive monitoring in hundreds of cities would cost much more. Bostock says Homeland Security will pick up the tabbut New York is still waiting for promised 9/11 recovery funds. Locally, the Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency, which will sample locally for HS, and the state Department of Ecology haven't seen any money yet.

"It's not cost-effective," says Jacqueline Cattani, director of the University of South Florida's Center for Biological Defense. "We should focus on detection in buildings" using filters that could be cheaply inserted in heating and air-conditioning systems. Cohen likes biochemical "sniffers," which give instant readings, in vulnerable sites such as subway stations. Both see more hope for spotting bioattacks speedily through a broad-based network monitoring everything from 911 calls and absentee rates to ER admissions and tissue and cold-medication sales. Cohen, a veteran ex-cop and congressional investigator, likens this approach to "tried-and-true police methods"and calls Bio-Watch "a security-guard approach."

But as Bostock notes, and as the D.C. anthrax scare showed, "waiting for people to get sick is not the ideal approach," either. Still, Bio-Watch won't give real-time warnings. Labs will take 12 to 24 hours to test the daily samples, producing results 12 to 48 hours after any bioattackassuming no backups at the lab or other delays. Linda Stetzenbach, director of the University of Nevada's Microbiology Division, says that culturing samples, if required, can take another 18 hours to several days. And overnight shipping will add another day, at least initially. Eventually, the 120 labs in the CDC's nationwide Laboratory Response Network should be equipped and trained to scan for bioweapons. For now, says Cattani, only two, in New York and Berkeley, Calif., appear to be prepared, and samples from elsewhere will be sent to Berkeley.

Even then, would those samples be readable? Stetzenbach, who notes that heavy dust and other particulates can spoil cultures and mask pathogens, doesn't know whether or how Bio-Watch operators might overcome this obstacle. Like other specialists, she's been out of the loop: "There hasn't been a lot of discussion in the science community."

Another expert, Victor Weedn of Carnegie-Mellon University's Biomedical Security Program, suggests a simpler way the EPA could use its pollution stations to catch bioattacks in real time: by watching for sudden surges in very fine particulates the size of bioweapon powders.

Weedn says he and his colleagues suggested using the EPA stations for biomonitoring well before 9/11 and Homeland Security. Three years later, Bio-Watch remains very much a work in progress; for that reason, perhaps it shouldn't be judged a boondoggle just yet. Despite the "haphazard" way it's being implemented, Cohen says it could prove a "good component in a comprehensive approach" to biohazardsif it doesn't just make us complacent in the usual way of snazzy techno-fixes.

But don't bet your life on it.

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