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Crying Wolf on Bioattacks?

A federal detection program to warn of bioterrorist threats has been plagued for years by false alarms, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The program, called BioWatch, was started in 2003 and was meant to alert officials to the possibility of a bioattack. Since its deployment, the Bush and Obama Administrations have spent more than $1 billion to equip more than 30 cities in the US and major events such as the Super Bowl and national political conventions with detection instruments.

But, according to the LA Times, scientists who worked on the program filed five patent applications between 2003 and 2006 aimed at improving the technology behind BioWatch. According to one of the patent applications, "'the existing methods for detecting' a release of disease-causing organisms into the environment were 'inadequate.'"

At least 56 false alarms caused by false positive results have been triggered by BioWatch through 2008, forcing officials to consider ordering mass evacuations and taking emergency procedures. The technology behind BioWatch is particularly shoddy in trying to differentiate the bacterium that causes tularemia from other genetically similar organisms that aren't harmful to humans, the newspaper says, citing scientists who know the BioWatch system.

Three of the five patent applications directed at improving BioWatch "involved efforts to better distinguish between DNA of tularemia and that of its close cousins." The other two patents were directed at the germs that cause brucellosis and plague. Patents were granted for all five applications.

The newspaper first reported on problems with the BioWatch program last month, saying "many who have worked with BioWatch — from the Army general who oversaw its initial deployment to state and local health officials who have seen its repeated failures up close — call it ill-conceived or unworkable."

Luminex in partnership with Northrop Grumman are competing for a contract to develop a next generation system for BioWatch, as our sister publication GenomeWeb Daily News reports. The LA Times, though, says that the system they have developed may not have a high enough sensitivity to be of any practical use. Calls to cut government spending have also put the BioWatch program in jeopardy.

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