Biosensors: What's Out There, Really?

There was a great hubub back in 2003 after Pres. Bush announced the creation of BioWatch, part of the Federal response to the anthrax attacks of Oct. 2001 and the threat of bioterrorism. The objective of BioWatch is to deploy thousands of sensors across the country - mostly in cities - sensors that can pick up biological, chemical, or nuclear traces. Basically, the sensors are part of an early-warning system primed to detect pathogens like anthrax, smallpox, tularemia and influenza. They are assumedly agnostic as to the origin of a trigger - they can't detect intent or whether the release is from a bioterrorist or a Indonesian chicken that snuck over to Queens. (BioWatch is not to be confused with BioSense, a syndromic surveillance network that gathers intake information from hospitals, over-the-counter sales from pharmacies, lab tests, and other info into an ad-hoc information network. Nor to be confused with BioShield, the ambious effort to provide an end-of-market demand for the vaccines and pharmaceuticals that might be used to treat a biological attack.)

Information about the program is very, very sketchy (not even the RAND Institute could get clear figures for a recent white paper on Infectious Disease and National Security [PDF LINK]). Some estimates have said there are 4,000 sensors installed in 31 cities extremely quickly (in a matter of months) in 2003 - just where has never been made public. There's been some criticism about how the program has been run, first in 2005 from the EPA inspector general's office (PDF LINK), and then this year a little-noticed report from the Homeland Security IG.

And there have been some false alarms - most prominently a tularemia attack in Houston that turned out to be simply environmetal bacteria.

And it's been hard to even discover what the sensors are or how they work - this Washington Post story implies that they are the size of a refrigerator and the samples are collected then tested manually back at a lab (I assumed they're using some sort of DNA-based molecular diagnostics at the lab).

That makes the "sensor network" far less high-tech than it seems to be, and indeed helps explain why it has been so cheap - this 2005 story from Government Executive puts the price at $1 million for installation and $1 million/city/year for operating costs, putting it at about $200 million for the three years from 2003 through 2005. That's exceptionally cheap for a Homeland Security program, but also underscores the "on the cheap" nature of what's been done so far. In other words, this may be more band-aid than panacea.

It also gives some context to this press release today from Temple University, that heralds a biosensor researchers at Temple's medical school have created. Who knows if Temple's will make it to market (it sounds very experimental, judging by the release). Still, thank god they and others are still chasing after improving these things. We may already have a network deployed. But that doesn't mean it's actually working.