Despite serving as the U.S.’s only defense against biological weapons, the BioWatch program is on the cutting board because of high cost and a large number of “false positives.”
These concerns, though real, should also be weighed against the very real threats in the world and the benefits brought by the BioWatch system.
BioWatch is a system of air filters that are currently set up in 30 U.S. cities, collecting samples in an effort to detect the release of dangerous pathogens into the air. Our current biological response relies on health care professionals to recognize symptoms, sometimes long after an attack has taken place, and then isolate the source based on the population affected. The BioWatch early warning system is a first step toward more preemptive response to a biological attack.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Centers for Disease Control need to do more to provide the information that Congress has requested concerning the anticipated upgrade to Generation 3, which is projected to cost $3.1 billion. Congress’s requests are valid, but DHS does itself no favors by being anything less than completely forthcoming.
While the project is far from perfect and only marginally effective at this point, the need for it is compounding. The availability of biological weapons and the educational material for use of these resources is increasing exponentially—and our adversaries are very eager to try their hand at using them. Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have made it very clear that this capability is high on their priority list.
Cutting funding to this project—like the funding cuts currently threatening our military—leaves us vulnerable in a way that will cripple our future security. The cost is high, but the potential benefits—preventing massive casualties due to a weaponized biological agent—must be considered. President Obama and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano would be wise to continue funding this program and challenging it to improve.