In testimony presented to congress last week, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) emphasized the importance of key biodetection and biosurveillance programs as part of the Office of Health Affairs (OHA) proposed 2013 budget.
Two programs listed as essential to an effective early warning posture for biological threats are the National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC) and Biowatch. Both programs have faced ongoing criticism for cost and delays. Dr. Alexander Garza, OHA Assistant Secretary and DHS Chief Medical Officer, defended the delays as characteristic of any new technological development programs of this magnitude and contended that methodically executing test and evaluation steps was acting in a fiscally responsible way.
NBIC coordinates national biosurveillance and situational awareness contributed by members from national, state and local levels to identify, characterize, localize, and track a biological event of national concern. Components include integration and analysis of information relating to human health, animal, plant, food, water, and environmental domains. The center oversees development and operation of the National Biosurveillance Integration System (NBIS), collectively working on the challenges of an integrated, real-time biosurveillance picture.
NBIC is supporting a demonstration project in North Carolina called the National Collaborative for Bio-Preparedness (NCB-P) to validate integrated information sharing of public health, animal surveillance, environmental monitoring, and other biosurveillance information on the state level. According, the FY 2013 budget request increases resources for OHA to move forward with their strategy for NBIC to support existing and additional pilot projects for improved biosurveillance information sharing with the private sector and federal partners.
The Biowatch Program consists of outdoor aerosol collectors deployed in over 30 cities whose filters are manually retrieved for subsequent analysis in a Laboratory Response Network (LRN) facility. In the past year, Biowatch successfully implemented the use of DoD Critical Reagents Program assays to conduct initial screening for the aerosol release of bioterrorism agents and complement confirmatory testing at LRN laboratories. The program also developed and made operational a new comprehensive quality assurance framework for Biowatch laboratory operations.
The FY 2013 budget request funds the existing Biowatch technology (Generations 1/2) and provides for continued development of Generation 3 (Gen-3) to reduce the time of detection of a biological agent with more automated technology now available. Garza stated DHS could be ready to move forward with the BioWatch Gen-3 procurement within 18 months of the conclusion of testing and evaluation.
The full testimony is available here.