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Last Updated

03 Apr 2003

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, April 3, 2003

S.F.'s bio-warfare sentries

City marshals devices to give early warning of anthrax, smallpox attacks

Stacy Finz, Alan Gathright, Chronicle Staff Writers Thursday

It might begin with something as innocuous as an advertising airplane dragging a banner over Pacific Bell Park -- as it secretly sprays anthrax on the crowd.

It can take up to seven days for victims to develop symptoms of the deadly disease, but long before that, bio-warfare sensors placed near the ballpark would detect the biological attack and medical teams would quickly be alerted to provide lifesaving antibiotics to people exposed to the pathogens.

The system would also mobilize law enforcement agencies before the terrorists' trail went cold.

It may sound futuristic, but the sensor network -- called BioWatch -- is already in the Bay Area and other metropolitan areas across the country, according to George Vinson, California's security adviser.

BioWatch is operated by the federal Department of Homeland Security. It is a device described by authorities in only vague terms -- they say it is larger than a bread box and smaller than a refrigerator. There are several in the Bay Area and they can be easily moved from place to place, depending on where law enforcement thinks the needs are greatest.

"We aren't discussing the specific numbers and locations of where these (sensors) are," said Homeland Security Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. He said the government started deploying the BioWatch sensors nationwide in January.

While authorities say BioWatch won't prevent an attack, they say the system -- created in collaboration with U.S. environmental and health experts -- could save thousands of lives by providing early warning.

After an anthrax or smallpox attack, "time is lives when it comes to any kind of treatment," said Wiley Davidson, deputy director of the Center for Homeland Security at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who helped create and test the early-warning system at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

"If you can get people on (the antibiotic) Cipro or other medications in less than a day -- before symptoms show up -- the (preventive treatment) is extremely effective," he said. "If you wait until symptoms show up, hardly anything works."

BioWatch is one of many high-tech projects the federal government is launching to protect the American air, water and food supply from terrorists.

The system is largely aimed at detecting a major bio-warfare attack at outdoor venues such as stadiums, amusement parks and political gatherings. But it's also capable of spotting small, indoor contamination such as the anthrax-laced letters that forced the closure of U.S. Congressional offices and Washington postal centers in 2001, Davidson said.

Years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the military was concerned about the nation's vulnerability to biological and chemical attack. So in 1998, scientists at national laboratories began developing technology for early detection. The system, initially called the Biological Aerosol Sentry and Information System (BASIS), got its trial run at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

During the games, authorities set up 16 mobile collectors, which vacuumed the air, said Dennis Imbro, program manager for the Chemical and Biological National Security Program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Filters were collected every two to eight hours and could be analyzed in as little as an hour.

Here is how the BioWatch device works: Tissue-fine filters trap particles that are later run through sophisticated lab tests able to detect the genetic fingerprints of specific strains of anthrax, smallpox and up to 10 other dangerous agents. Imbro said the goal is to have detection tests for every agent on the danger list maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The sensor network would be linked with a nationwide computer system, scanning hospitals to spot suspicious surges in patient admissions.

Some bio-warfare experts have warned that BioWatch could miss all but the biggest attacks, and could be prone to false alarms that would spark needless panic and paralyze cities. They also worry that air pollution and grime could clog the filters.

While calling the system "very sensitive," Davidson acknowledged that a small release could "slip between" spread-out sensors.

But Imbro and Davidson said that over the years, scientists have refined the technology and worked out most of the bugs.

"We have done thousands and thousands of tests," Imbro said. "We've tried it in many different situations and have worked out the problems. Now normal things, such as dust, pollen, pollutants and other normal things you see in the environment, don't affect the system."

At San Francisco International Airport, researchers from Livermore's Sandia National Laboratories have nearly finished 2 1/2 years of testing a variety of biological and chemical sensors that could shield the millions of travelers who use the airport annually. If everything goes well and federal funding comes in, the system could become operational as early as 2004, said SFO spokesman Mike McCarron.

"We're moving as fast as we can on it," McCarron said. "Hopefully, we'll be a less attractive target because of it."

In Oklahoma, U.S. military and environmental researchers are running tests to see whether existing weather and aviation radar can spot simulated bio- chemical agents sprayed from crop-dusters -- a tactic that the Sept. 11 hijackers were reportedly exploring.

Meanwhile, California Gov. Gray Davis has received $4.2 million from the federal government to help the state's hospitals better prepare for possible bio-terrorism attacks. About $800,000 is earmarked for Bay Area medical centers.

"Of course, no amount of security is completely foolproof or fail-safe," Davis said. "But, we are doing everything we can to prevent acts of terror and to protect our people."