Experts Question Bioterror Alert System

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At secret locations in at least 31 cities, the government has installed devices that scour the air for deadly agents like anthrax and smallpox with hopes of sniffing out bioterrorism. But the effort is viewed with skepticism, the Associated Press reports. Some security experts said the system is unlikely to catch a bioterrorism attack in time to save many lives. They said it is powerless to spot an attack in an enclosed area, like an airport terminal or subway line, and unable to detect attacks unless they are big enough to scatter over several blocks.

The sensors have been in place since early spring. The government won’t say where, but health officials confirmed the list includes Philadelphia, New York, Washington, San Diego, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and St. Louis. The White House says the “Biowatch” monitoring system would cost about $1 million annually per city.

“The main advantage or having a system like Biowatch is that prior to it being rolled out, the only real way to tell if a biological agent had been released was to see if people started turning up sick or worse,” said a federal official. Calvin Chue, a researcher at the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies at Johns Hopkins University, said the cost of testing and replacing the filters daily will be high and the probability of spotting a contaminant low. He said results will be difficult to confirm, especially in polluted cities or places where natural organisms found in the air can give false-positive results.

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