As the threat from bio-terror attacks steadily climbs, the U.S. government is re-energizing its approach to protecting population centers by focusing on global cooperation and improving bio defenses. The changes come as intelligence agencies and law enforcement around the world indicate that bio threats are growing, along with the need for detection systems that can classify a potential bio-threat instantaneously. “The possibility of unlawful acts using biological materials represents a growing concern for law enforcement, governments and public health officials around the world,” Interpol said in a recent assessment.
As part of its effort to prepare for microbial storms unleashed by nature and by adversaries, the Department of Defense is working internationally and domestically to improve global biosurveillance cooperation. For example, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) is working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the State Deportment, and the government of Poland on bio-surveillance exercises. Between late 2011 and September 2014, the exercises “will use the release of two agents — one contagion and one environmentally persistent bio-threat — to develop and demonstrate a capability for resilience in countering a threat that affects U.S. and Polish civilians and military personnel and key infrastructure,” said the Armed Forces Press Service.
In addition, DTRA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are pursuing greater international cooperation on bio defenses. Kenneth Myers, the top official at DTRA, told Congress in April that the two front line agencies inked agreements to “improve and expand a global network of international partners that can provide accurate and timely awareness of biological threats; and build a reliable and sustainable capacity to detect, prevent, attribute, report, respond, and recover from CBRNE threats, as early as possible, for the United States and international partners.”
Underpinning the concerns about the threat is the rapid pace of biotechnology developments. The latest discoveries in the life sciences diffuse globally and rapidly, increasing the threat. At the same time, the knowledge and know-how emerging from the biotechnology revolution is often accessible given its dual-use nature. “As technology proliferates, chemical and biological weapons are becoming more sophisticated,” said a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report to Congress from earlier this year. Biological materials, such as bacteria, viruses and toxins “are significantly cheaper and easier to produce, handle and transport than nuclear or chemical materials,” says Interpol. And that makes them attractive for terrorists and rogue nation states. What’s more, the biological agents “are difficult to detect and symptoms from exposure may not appear for days, possibly weeks,” the world’s largest international police organization said.
In its reassessment of bio-defense programs, the Obama administration this past spring cancelled development of a new bio attack detection system. While earlier generation defenses remain in place, Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), terminated the BioWatch Generation-3, or Gen-3, because of its excessive price tag (over $3 billion) and concerns in Congress about the project’s effectiveness. Gen-3 was being designed to continuously monitor the air for dangerous aerosolized biological agents and provide an improved early warning capability over the BioWatch Gen-2 variant, which is currently deployed around the U.S. The promise of the Gen-3 was the ability to collect and analyze air samples in less than six hours, unlike Gen-2 which can take up to 36 hours to detect and confirm the presence of biological pathogens. In the wake of the Gen-3 program’s demise, DHS officials have publicly expressed their commitment to the BioWatch program as they have stressed the need to develop improved systems capable of monitoring for biological attack and rapidly providing information to decision-makers.
One fundamental pillar of the Obama administration’s strategy is robust biosurveillance capabilities that provide as early detection as possible. The faster a bio event is detected, the faster the threat can be contained and a response and aid be sent to contain and provide emergency and medical assistance. Officials stated that the focus should be on building “capacities to detect bio attacks in near-real time in order to enhance protective response actions.” As DTRA’s Kenneth Miller said, “timing is everything with bio defense.”
A handful of organizations are focused on developing technology that can detect bio attacks in near real time and cost effectively. For example, Battelle recently introduced REBS (Resource Effective Bioidentification System) – a significant advance in biological warfare-agent collection and identification. REBS is a ruggedized, battery-powered system that is small and easier to carry than existing gear, yet capable of continuous, autonomous operation in missions lasting for days or weeks with supply line power, or up to 18 hours if the integrated batteries are used. Perhaps most important in an era of government austerity, REBS drives down the cost for continuous monitoring because liquid consumables (e.g., chemistries, reagents) are not used. Rather, REBS uses patented aerosol collection and Raman spectroscopy to provide rapid and autonomous identification of an ever-expanding list of potential biological threats. This significantly drives down costs of operations to under $1 per day.
As the worst-ever outbreak of the Ebola virus in Africa underscores, developing defense systems capable of real-time analysis of weaponized biological threats — and to do so on budget and on schedule — is essential.