DHS Halts NYC Bio-Attack Protection

Monday, 11 May 2009 12:03 PM

By Jim Meyers

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The Department of Homeland Security is halting a pilot program designed to detect a biological weapons attack in New York City's subways.

U.S. officials cited technical problems in disclosing that the warning system would be dismantled.

Under an earlier program, BioWatch, the federal government in 2003 installed air samplers in more than 30 U.S. cities — including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C. — to detect the release of such biological weapons as anthrax spores and smallpox viruses. The program was created in response to increased biological weapons fears sparked by the 2001 anthrax attacks.

BioWatch cost around $500 million and was intended to alert authorities before disease could spread, The Washington Post reported.

But the program's air samplers rely on air filters that must be collected by hand and evaluated in a lab, which takes about 30 hours, defeating the purpose of an "early warning" system.

The pilot program in New York used newer sensors, installed in 2007, that can automatically test the air hourly for as many as 100 possible toxins and send the results immediately.

But in the past several months, officials found that a device designed to detect a particular biological agent in several of the sensors began malfunctioning.

New York is still protected by the older sensors, which are being monitored more frequently, according to Homeland Security and city officials.

The department plans to begin testing a new generation of sensors this summer, Robert Hooks, a deputy assistant secretary, told The Post.

The new system was originally set for deployment late next year, but Hooks said it will not be available nationwide until 2012 to allow for further testing.

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