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Bipartisan E&C Leaders Request GAO Examination of DHS’s New Biosurveillance Pilot Program

Aug 8, 2019
Press Release

A bipartisan group of Energy and Commerce Committee leaders sent a letter to Government Accountability Office (GAO) Comptroller General Gene Dodaro requesting an examination of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) new biodetection technology system called BioDetection 21 (BD21) as well as an evaluation of the agency’s implementation of GAO’s prior recommendations for the program.  The BD21 pilot program is intended as a potential replacement for DHS’s biosurveillance program BioWatch, an early warning system designed to detect a large-scale, covert attack that releases anthrax or other agents of bioterrorism in the air.

The letter was signed by Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR), Oversight and Investigations Chair Diana DeGette (D-CO), and Oversight and Investigations Ranking Member Brett Guthrie (R-KY).

“We write to request that the Government Accountability Office examine the Department of Homeland Security’s deployment of a new biodetection technology system called BioDetection 21 to replace BioWatch, and the status of the DHS’s implementation of GAO’s prior recommendations concerning BioWatch,” the bipartisan Committee leaders wrote.  “This Committee has an ongoing bipartisan interest in biosurveillance programs that involve the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the state and local public health laboratories.”

The Energy and Commerce Committee has a longstanding interest in DHS’s biosurveillance programs.  In 2013, the Committee investigated the effectiveness and efficiency of BioWatch following concerns that the program may be generating false positive results.  As part of that investigation, the Committee requested a GAO review of BioWatch, which found that DHS lacked reliable information on the technical capabilities of BioWatch and recommended that the agency not pursue upgrades to the program until it reliably established the system’s current capabilities.  Earlier this year, the Committee requested a briefing from DHS following Los Angeles Times reporting that raised serious concerns over whether the agency had followed through with GAO’s recommendations. 

As part of the Committee’s inquiry into BD21, the members asked GAO to review the adequacy of the science of biodetection technology, including the following:

  • To what extent has DHS implemented the GAO recommendations from the 2015 report on reliably establishing the capabilities of BioWatch?
  • What are DHS’s requirements for the acquisition of a technology and to what extent has BD21 followed those requirements?
  • What is the technical maturity of the critical technology elements of BD21?  How robust are the DHS test and evaluation plans to de-risk operational deployment of the critical technology elements of BD21 sufficiently, and what do the results, if any, show to date?

To read the full letter, click here.