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DoD To Develop Biological Agent Early Warning System

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 27, 2002 – Say you wake up one fine morning in Anytown, U.S.A., walk over to the open window and take in a deep breath of fresh air ahhhhhhh!

Terrorists would likely prefer you inhale some anthrax or smallpox at the same time. That's why DoD will start work this fall on a biological agent detection and identification program as part of efforts to develop a national early warning system for urban areas.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America and the subsequent anthrax assaults through the U.S. Postal Service highlighted a national need for standard systems to detect and provide warning for the presence of biological agents, said Anna Johnson-Winegar, deputy assistant secretary of defense for chemical and biological defense programs.

"This is really a very critical issue for us as a nation, and I think DoD has a tremendous amount of expertise," she noted. It's important, she said, to have an integrated effort -- "for all of us to be able to work together and to present a national response."

The threat of biological agent use is higher now than it's ever been, she noted, adding that Americans in the past placed that scenario in the 'what if?' category. The anthrax letters last fall turned the concept of biological warfare on U.S. soil into a reality, Johnson-Winegar said.

"I think it's important to be as best prepared as we can be for any type of future use of a biological agent on either the military or the civilian population," she said.

The DoD Biological Defense Homeland Security Support Program seeks to expand and augment pilot programs in Washington, D.C., and other locations after Sept. 11 and the anthrax assaults, she said. The idea, she continued, is to be able to more rapidly determine potential attacks involving biological weapons and agents in the atmosphere.

She said the program is to begin this fall at locations throughout metropolitan Washington and at Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, N.M. She noted more than $400 million has been allocated for the program in fiscal 2003.

The biological agent detection system under development consists of an integrated network of environmental sensors coupled with the monitoring and surveillance of local health systems, Johnson-Winegar noted. Medical care facilities, she added, monitor public reactions to things that may be in the atmosphere.

In this way, officials can obtain as much of an early warning as possible, she explained.

Having expert technicians, special labs and equipment, Johnson-Winegar noted, DoD brings a lot to the table in researching and safeguarding against biological agents.

Before Sept. 11, DoD had placed biological agent detectors at some military bases "where we thought there was an extremely high threat of the potential use of a biological agent," she said. "We've been collecting data on a number of those places, so that we have a pretty high confidence level that the systems (under development) will work accurately and will be good responders for us."

As part of the program, real biological agents, like anthrax, will be used to test detectors placed inside specially enclosed chambers, she said. Kirtland already has a compatible infrastructure that can support a future test bed facility, she noted.

The detection equipment comes in a variety of sizes and shapes, Johnson-Winegar said. Whether used indoors or outdoors, the sensors will be unobtrusive, she noted, like mailboxes or utility boxes, similar to equipment used at the recent Salt Lake City Olympics. Some sensors will have replaceable filters that need to be removed and tested at a lab, she said, while others will have remote alarms.

Sensors that pass testing will be distributed at a number of indoor and outdoor locations, she said. Effectiveness of the system, she explained, will be evaluated using scientific estimates of how biological agents might travel according to prevailing weather, climate and topography.

Sensor data would work in concert with ongoing monitoring of the health care system, Johnson-Winegar said.

"As individuals may report to their doctors or emergency room with undiagnosed symptoms, we'll marry that information up with the sample analysis that we're getting from the environmental detectors," she explained, adding that a city's air quality would have to be factored in while determining the potential presence of bio-agents

If a bio-sensor triggers during a genuine situation, technicians would immediately check which way the wind is blowing, when and where the next sensor goes off, and whether people showing up in emergency rooms have a particular set of symptoms, she said.

The testing program is expected to produce a prototype biological agent early warning system in place in 2004, Johnson-Winegar noted.

She said DoD intends to begin installing biological agent detectors in the fall at nine military installations across the United States. DoD hopes to glean a lot of information from this, she noted, because the selected bases are different sizes, in different geographic locations and have different missions.

In this way, she continued, DoD can learn how many bio- detectors are right for a particular base. "It's not going to be based just on the square footage of a particular area nor just on the number of people who normally live and work there," she said. "It's a matrix of a lot of different things, to include environmental conditions."

Ultimately, Johnson-Winegar pointed out, the DoD Biological Defense Homeland Security Support Program would come under the purview of the proposed Homeland Security Department.

"It's certainly our understanding, and, from our planning point of view, that the Department of Homeland Security is the appropriate agency to do this type of work," she explained. Further, she added, DoD is fully prepared to continue the biological defense program on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security.

After the Sept. 11 and anthrax attacks, "It became pretty obvious that the best way to go forward was for all the various federal agencies, as well as the state and local first responders, to come together in a coherent, well- organized fashion to address problems," she said.

DoD provided assistance to the Environmental Protection Agency during clean up operations at affected posts offices and office buildings, she noted, and it worked with the Department of Health and Human Services during the search for antibiotics used to treat anthrax victims. She said DoD would continue to work with all federal, state and local agencies in the name of preparedness for potential attacks.

"A biological agent is not going to recognize the borders of a military installation," she said. "I think the best way to get the job done is for all of us to work together."

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