program in its current form and with proposed changes in technology and scale of operation. Chapter 3 presents the committee’s evaluation of the effectiveness of the BioWatch program and system and provides recommendations for improvements.


DHS states that the goal of the BioWatch program “is to establish and operate a bio-aerosol monitoring capability to accurately detect the release of biological threat agents of greatest concern to the [n]ation in locations that are at greatest risk of catastrophic consequences and to enable timely response and mitigation” (DHS, 2008c). The rationale for the BioWatch program is that early detection of an aerosolized bioterrorist attack could allow for mass distribution of prophylactic medications or other medical countermeasures in time to prevent widespread illness or deaths. For example, under a DHS “worst case” planning scenario involving an aerosolized anthrax attack in a large urban area and exposure of a few million people, hundreds of thousands of people would develop life-threatening disease requiring intensive medical care. Under this planning scenario, providing antibiotic prophylaxis to the exposed population within 3 days of the attack is projected to prevent nearly all of the deaths that would otherwise occur (Hooks, 2008a).

The program’s scope includes management and operation of the day-to-day air sampling and laboratory testing as well as planning and preparation for a bioterrorist attack and coordination and management tasks when DNA (or nucleic acid evidence) of a targeted pathogen is detected. The BioWatch system generates information that feeds into public health decision making and response, and DHS looks to state and local health agencies and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) at the federal level to prepare for and manage the public health response to BioWatch results.

Participants and Responsibilities

BioWatch is a federal program led by DHS and designed to operate in collaboration with other federal partners and with the states and localities where air samplers are deployed. The program is currently managed by the DHS Office of Health Affairs (OHA). Until 2007, the program was the responsibility of the DHS Directorate for Science and Technology (S&T). OHA continues to rely on S&T for technology development. S&T is also responsible for analyses to characterize biological threats and assess the risk they pose, including preparing the biennial Bioterrorism Risk Assessment (BTRA) and an integrated chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) risk assessment.

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