In October, 2001, five people were killed and twelve injured when a series of anthrax laced letters were sent to major U.S. news organizations and prominent members of Congress. Now, seven years later, it is widely reported that the FBI finally has identified the individual responsible for the first documented attack with biological weapons in the United States in modern times.
As difficult as the FBI investigation has proven to be, detecting and preventing another terrorist attack is even more challenging. A number of those infected with anthrax were not even the targets of the attack. They were innocent postal workers or civilians who came in contact with contaminated mail, often days before the anthrax letters were delivered to their intended recipients. One of the horrors of biological agents is that days can pass between infection and the outbreak of symptoms. In that period, infected individuals may spread the disease to hundreds of others.
In the aftermath of the 2001 attacks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) instituted a program, called BioWatch, intended, in part, to develop a nationwide monitoring capability to detect future biological threats. Special sensors were deployed in U.S. Postal Service mail handling centers to guard against a repeat of the 2001 attacks. A limited number of additional sensors – the exact number and their location is classified – were deployed at selected high traffic sites in major metropolitan areas.
Unfortunately, the current generation of sensors does not provide timely detection and warning. These devices sample the air, collecting materials on paper filters that must be manually removed from the sensors and sent to a laboratory for analysis. The process can take days. For each day that detection and warning is delayed the cost in human lives, depending on the biological agent, could be measured in the thousands.
A new generation of sensors has been developed that could provide reliable warning of a biological threat in a matter of hours. The Autonomous Pathogen Detection System (APDS) is essentially an automated laboratory in a box, able to detect multiple threats, and report every four hours. This system has already undergone two years of field testing.
DHS has been inexplicably slow in deploying new sensor systems to provide improved warning of attack, whether by biological threats or of nuclear materials being smuggled through our hundreds of ports of entry. The Department should provide additional funds to accelerate production of the new generation of sensors with the intent of widespread deployment beginning in 2010. Without such rapid and reliable warning, the United States faces the prospect of losing the next war before it is even aware that it is under attack.
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