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Key lawmaker calls for halt to controversial system to detect biological attacks

David Willman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Citing "serious concerns" about unproven technology rushed into use by the Trump administration to detect biological attacks, the chairwoman of the House Science and Technology Committee is calling for the system to be shut down.

The chairwoman, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, said Wednesday that the administration's newly deployed program, called BioDetection 21, or BD21, "should not move forward until fundamental concerns about its technological viability and conceptual framework are resolved."

Johnson, D-Texas, voiced her concerns in a letter to acting Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Gary C. Rasicot, who inherited his position and the program when its original promoter, presidential appointee James F. McDonnell, resigned under pressure in October. McDonnell was facing congressional scrutiny for his efforts with BD21 and his cutbacks of a range of programs intended to counter chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological threats.

In her letter, Johnson cited a Los Angeles Times investigative report published in February that revealed the new technology's deficiencies, including its failures in government-sponsored tests to detect small particles of anthrax and other infectious agents that terrorists might wield in a biological attack.

For instance, the tests found that the technology to be relied on by BD21 detected viral material simulating smallpox or other deadly viruses that could be weaponized in just eight of 168 attempts, a success rate of less than 5%.

Yet by early this year McDonnell had spearheaded the deployment of BD21 to a dozen cities and said he expected that it would replace BioWatch, the nation's existing and long-troubled system for detecting aerosolized biological threats, by 2021.

 

BioWatch was installed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the emergence of several letters that were laced with anthrax. Anthrax from the letters killed five people, infected 16 others and caused closures of prominent government buildings in Washington and major disruptions to the delivery of U.S. mail. BioWatch, however, has been plagued with technical shortcomings and, as of 2014, had generated 149 false alarms.

BioWatch relies on devices placed at street level or atop buildings in metropolitan areas nationwide that suck air through filters to trap any suspicious material. Once a day, the filter is replaced and then taken to a laboratory to search for BioWatch-targeted pathogens.

Unlike that system, BD21 depends on so-called trigger devices that use fluorescent light to identify potentially dangerous biological material in the air. Once the devices trigger a warning, officials would seek confirmation with handheld equipment.

But as The Times reported in February, technical experts hired by Homeland Security have advised the department not to use the hand-held devices because of concerns about their reliability.

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