I-Team

I-Team Report: The Airborne Identity

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

What if our current health scare wasn't the flu but a deadly virus that had been intentionally released?

According to some experts and government reports, we aren't as ready as we should be for either of them.

The government has a biodefense system in place used to establish "the airborne identity" of dangerous germs.

The system is built to identify virus and bacteria; whether it is a natural outbreak of the flu or the intentional use of a biological weapon.

There are two components to the U.S. biodefense system:

- First, a network of sophisticated equipment in large cities that tests the air for deadly pathogens such as smallpox and the plague. This network is called "biowatch" and is operated by U.S. Homeland Security.

- the second part of the system is called BioSense and is a computer network that links together hundreds of U.S. hospitals to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

It is this part of the nation's biodefense system that is being used during the current flu outbreak.

Every day since the H1N1 flu outbreak, emergency room reports have been transmitted to Centers for Disease Control headquarters from 530 sources across the country. Among them is the Cook County Department of Public Health that has been link into the CDC since 2005.

"The server sits in a room and talks to our 20 hospitals here in suburban cook county and gathers data 4 times a day from the emergency rooms," said Dr. Stephen Martin, Cook County Department of Public Health.

Most of Illinois and much of the nation is not wired into the CDC's system, so there are gaping holes. But Martin says Illinois will soon announce a plan to bring all community's into BioSense.

"Now we put two computers together to have them talking to each other, let's see what else we can learn and see how quicker we can respond," said Dr. Martin.

By the time U.S. authorities knew that there was a serious flu outbreak in Mexico last month, the first Americans were already sick.

In other words, it was too late to contain the flu bug in Mexico, it had already spread over the border.

At Wednesday's CDC briefing in Atlanta, the I-Team asked what officials have learned from the performance of BioSense computers during this flu outbreak.

"We will, as we go forward, look to see what pieces of surveillance information were most useful and provided good insight in terms of what was taking place on the ground and what wasn't...we haven't done the look back to say okay, which pieces of information were critical, or critically important to decision making at what points," said Dr. Richard Besser, CDC acting chief.

If the illness had been a deadly pathogen, such as the 1912 smallpox outbreak in Illinois, instead of a common flu bug, the other defensive prong would have been used: BioWatch.

Equipment in place at O'Hare and dozens of other Chicago locations is designed to detect bacteria or viral terrorist attacks and allow authorities to contain it. BioWatch has been operating in Chicago and at least 30 other cities and began after the 2001 anthrax attacks following 9/11.

"We know that with a well thought through bio attack there will be casualties. What we hope to do is keep it from being a mass catastrophe," said Professor Barry Kellman, DePaul law professor.

Bioweapons expert Barry Kellman has testified before congress and written a book on bioweapons.

The BioWatch program itself was recently overhauled, following this inspector general's report that discovered numerous improper procedures, poor quality control and faulty sampling.

But what the current flu outbreak shows, is that despite an estimated 32 billion dollars spent on bio-defense in Chicago and elsewhere, a terrorist wouldn't even have to come here to carry out an attack.

"We're vulnerable to something that happens outside the United States, that's the lesson. The bugs don't care, they will cross borders and they do with very great speed," said Prof. Kellman.

Kellman says the U.S. Should send equipment and medical supplies to foreign countries so that bioattacks there can be detected or contained before reaching the U.S.

Senator Dick Durbin sounds as though he would support such legislation.

"I can understand that we want to make sure our own people are protected but part of the protection, maybe, in stopping a disease before it reaches our shore, and we should be prepared to do that," said Sen. Dick Durbin, (D) Illinois.

Because of delays and revisions, the nation's biosurveillance network used to track illnesses won't be complete until at least 2012. That will be cutting it close, according to the conclusion of a bi-partisan panel appointed by Congress. Last December that study group issued its final report and warned Americans to expect a biological attack in the U.S. sometime in the next five years, by 2013.

Find out more about BioSense on the CDC's Web site: www.cdc.gov/BioSense/
Find out more about the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Biodefense program at: www.dhs.gov/xabout/structure/gc_1205180907841.shtm
Read the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Inspector General's 2007 report of BioWatch at: www.dhs.gov/xoig/assets/mgmtrpts/OIG_07-22_Jan07.pdf
Read the U.S. Government Accountability Office's 2008 report of BioSense at: www.gao.gov/new.items/d09100.pdf

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