WASHINGTON (CN) — Picking apart flaws in the government’s system of monitoring for bioweapons, a panel of scientists warned House lawmakers Thursday that America is grossly unprepared for a bioterrorist attack.
Asha George, executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, noted that U.S. funding for bioweapons protection has been on the decline since the end of the Cold War — this in spite of the relative ease by which terrorist groups can weaponize biological agents or, even more easily, get their hands on materials that have already been weaponized by the former Soviet Union.
Both al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have publicized their pursuit of biological weapons, and North Korea is suspected to be actively developing a program to roll out bioweapons.
Faced with the risk of a strike that would hit the country with deadly disease on a massive scale, or cripple the economy with a pathogen-induced crop failure, Democrats and Republicans alike at today’s hearing of the Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery called on the Trump administration to take such threats seriously.
Democrats raised concern over the recent resignation of Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, as well as the department’s assistant secretary overseeing the office created last year to prevent terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction.
As summarized by Representative Donald Payne, D-N.J., the department tasked with protecting the homeland is “suffering a serious leadership drought.”
Experts testifying this morning warned meanwhile that the various faults with the Department of Homeland Security’s system of collecting and testing air samples for biological agents has resulted in false alarms or delayed notification on lethal pathogens.
The Department of Homeland Security has so far deployed a dozen detectors known as BD21, short for Biodetection 21. George said they go off at least once a day.
One flaw the experts flagged in the new system is the government’s failure to integrate environmental data, ignoring factors like pollen count and air quality.
Meanwhile the alarm itself actually causes little response because there is no operational plan in place to direct state or local officials, or federal agencies like the Defense Department or FBI, to properly respond to an attack.
“They go off but nobody knows what to do,” George said.
As Washington pushes BD21 on local officials, meanwhile, Jennifer Rakeman with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene complained about Homeland Security’s failure to coordinate with state agencies.
“We are not confident in the maturity of the technology that is being deployed,” Rakeman said. “It’s technology that has been used in a military setting, which is not appropriate for an urban center like New York City, or other cities around the country. It generates a lot of false alarms.”
The experts testified that smaller-scale detection systems, like the portable sampling devices used at large sporting events, require up to 36 hours to confirm an attack because air samples collected on site are returned to a lab for testing.
George also reminded lawmakers: “There is no guarantee that federal support will arrive within the first few hours after a biological event occurs.”
“They are not utilizing state-of-the-art technology … and frankly they are not seeking the input of the state and local folks who will actually have to respond,” she said.
Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., said that 36 hours is too long to wait to confirm a deadly outbreak. Rakeman agreed: “To be able to pick up an attack, to save lives, hours count.” Technology to test for a suspected attack in high-risk locations like Grand Central Station in New York does exist, experts noted, but is still in development.