D.C. Mystery: Why Did Homeland Security Cancel Bio-Threat Contract?


Since Sept. 11, 2001 and the anthrax letters that followed, the government has struggled to develop a reliable way to detect pathogens that could signal a devastating biological attack. Last year, the Washington Post reports, a Silicon Valley start-up came close to producing what government scientists considered a breakthrough technology. It was a device the size of a ski boot that could test for tiny microorganisms at rapid speed. Six months before NVS Technologies was to deliver its first prototypes, the Department of Homeland Security canceled its contract.

According to a draft audit and officials familiar with the project, the decision was improperly made by a single official, without supporting evidence and over the objections of experts in DHS's Science and Technology Directorate. The directorate's own review cited “substantial data” showing that the new technology worked and was needed to help detect bio-threats, said the DHS inspector general's office. DHS officials have told auditors and members of Congress that the contract was terminated because existing technologies could better meet the agency's needs for confronting bio-threats. Senior government scientists from several agencies said they don't find that explanation credible. Ultimately, they said, the reason for the contract's termination remains a mystery.

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