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Sunday, May 28th, 2023

End of BioWatch looms near, Blue Ribbon Study Panel members learn

James F. McDonnell

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) outdated BioWatch Program, launched in 2003 as an early warning system for potential bioterrorist attacks in the United States, is being replaced, a federal expert told members of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense on Nov. 14 during a report on biosurveillance and biodetection.

“I don’t mean to repeat what’s in your report’s critique of BioWatch. I’ll just state that everything you’ve said is accurate,” said panelist James F. McDonnell, assistant secretary for the DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office, referring to A National Blueprint for Biodefense published in 2015 by the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, which recommended replacing BioWatch as part of the nation’s development of a “21st Century-worthy environmental detection system.”

“I’m happy to tell you … that we intend to replace BioWatch — actually we’ve already started that process,” said McDonnell, previously the director of the federal Domestic Nuclear Detection Office.
McDonnell’s position was established last December and made permanent by the U.S. House of Representatives this year. Appointed to head the office in May, he has rapidly moved to make requested changes.

The goal to end BioWatch, he said, is part of a bigger administration revamp for how the federal government collects, uses, monitors and distributes information for fighting biological threats, and to do it with more speed so that a pathogen doesn’t have time to morph into a full-blown pandemic.
“Our plan,” McDonnell said, “is to replace BioWatch within the next couple years.”

Currently, BioWatch provides air-monitoring, analysis, notification procedures, and risk assessment to more than 30 metropolitan jurisdictions in America toward substantially minimizing the catastrophic impact of a biological attack, according to DHS.

A massive network of stakeholders is involved in BioWatch from across public health, emergency management, law enforcement, laboratory, scientific, and environmental health organizations who collaborate to detect and prepare a coordinated response to a bioterrorism attack, according to DHS.

In April, the department said technology upgrades for BioWatch would better address a wider range of bioterrorism threats, provide real-time data across DHS, and enhance information-sharing between operators at the federal, state and local levels.

But as McDonnell pointed out last week, a new plan focused on big data and distributed sensors is needed to replace a slow, outmoded program that he called unacceptable.

“CWMD, including biodefense, is a top priority of this administration. The president’s national security strategy includes weapons of mass destruction and specifically calls out biodefense,” McDonnell told the panel members.

“But the strategy doesn’t just say biodefense; it also says pandemics,” he pointed out, adding that the national security strategy “is a partnership that I can assure you we are working on very closely with our partners. Big data is a big part of what we’re going to do.”

One of those DHS partners, for instance, is the U.S. Army Rapid Capabilities Office, which has been realigned to focus on top modernization priorities such as building stronger tactical cyber teams.

The office experiments with technologies in real time to address both urgent and emerging threats and reports to a board of directors led by the U.S. Secretary of the Army, including the Chief of Staff of the Army and the Army Acquisition Executive, as well as McDonnell’s office and the U.S. Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), he said.

One of the first projects the Army Rapid Capabilities Office and DHS are partnering on, for instance, is Biodetection 21, or BD21, named, McDonnell said, “based on what was in the panel’s recommendation to have a 21st Century system.”

“I believe the first equipment for the system will be in the field next month,” he added, noting that contracts for BD21 are being handled by the CWMD Consortium at Aberdeen Proving Grounds with the Army.

Over the next six to eight months, McDonnell said the partnership will have five different technologies deployed in 12 different locations across the United States to begin collecting data into the DHS U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s National Targeting Center, which works 24-7-365 to monitor and detect global threats to the U.S. via human travelers or cargo.

“We will leverage this DHS big data center that’s been built up over the years and literally tracks every container, commodity and person moving and coming into the United States,” said McDonnell, noting that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture also will be involved.

“We want to know what’s moving, where it’s moving, where it’s emerging,” he said.

What’s new in this mission, he said, is the way the federal government will look at biosurveillance and better integration of big data.

“I’ll be assigning 150 people to be on the information analysis side of the WMD mission,” he said. “They will be full-time, dispersed around different agencies, and embedded in the intelligence community … so that we can see things as they’re emerging and as they’re developing regardless of where they are.”

For example, BD21 will continuously scan the environment for anomalies, or indicators, that he said may or may not point to the presence of a biological agent. The system will rely on big-data analytics to determine whether further inspection is warranted.

If so, an incident management center would be set up in the first 20-30 minutes so someone in range could take a sample and make a presumptive analysis so that people could start making high-risk decisions like shutting down air handling systems or turning off trains, McDonnell explained.

“What we’ve done is put operators between the detector and the laboratory just like we do for bomb squads or hazmat units,” said McDonnell. “So incident managers can say, ‘I’ve got a problem, I’m gonna manage it, let’s send samples over to the CDC lab to determine exactly what’s there;’ then decisions can be made on the right pharmaceutical deployments and other types of public health responses to be made.”

Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense Co-Chairman Joseph Lieberman called McDonnell’s summary “an encouraging report” and said the panel “really appreciates hearing you say that you intend to replace BioWatch and are taking steps right now to do that.”