Bipartisan Committee Leadership Requests GAO Study of BioWatch

August 2, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC – Bipartisan leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote on Thursday to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting a study of the Department of Homeland Security’s BioWatch program and the status of the program’s “Generation-3” procurement. The request builds upon a recent Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing that featured testimony from the Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Full committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Ranking Member Henry A. Waxman (D-CA), Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-PA), and Ranking Member Diana DeGette (D-CO) made the request.

Aimed at detecting and providing warning about potential biological attacks, the BioWatch program has been affected by false alarms and other problems since it’s deployment in 2003. As a result of these setbacks, some local and state officials where BioWatch systems have been deployed have expressed a lack of confidence in the technology and have admitted they are hesitant to rely on the program’s detection abilities. Over the course of the committee’s ongoing investigation, opened last year, members have raised concerns that BioWatch is not adequately fulfilling its role of protecting the public and has cost taxpayers approximately $1 billion to date.

The committee leaders wrote, “We believe that the Congress and the administration would benefit from a comprehensive technical evaluation by the GAO of currently deployed systems designed to detect airborne, biological threats in the environment, and those planned or under development, by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). … Since the DHS Office of Health Affairs is in the process of determining whether Gen-3 BioWatch should be funded for a second phase of more advanced testing, and since such testing assumes a high degree of maturity of the technology, concerns have been raised regarding the extent to which its performance characteristics actually meet operational requirements.” 

The bipartisan leaders have requested GAO address the following questions:

  1. To what extent has DHS determined the existing Gen-1/2 BioWatch system’s technical capability to detect a biological attack?
  1. To what extent do the Gen-3 BioWatch system’s technical capabilities meet DHS’s requirements and operational needs for phase 2 testing (i.e., what engineering and/or system metrics are being used to determine overall system performance) and what, if any, developmental testing is ongoing or planned for the Gen-3 system?
  1. To what extent will the Gen-3 system provide additional benefits to the user over the existing Gen-1/2 system?

To read the letter, click here.

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