Is Our National Biodefense Really This Ignorant of Microbiology?

Or is it just ass-covering? Because this is a terrifying level of ignorance (boldface mine):

In more than 30 cities, BioWatch samplers located atop buildings, in train stations and in other public places suck air through dry filters around the clock. Once a day, the filters are taken to public health laboratories to be analyzed for traces of smallpox, anthrax, plague and other pathogens….

The multiplex assays could not distinguish between the bacterium that causes tularemia, a potentially deadly condition also known as rabbit fever, and similar but benign organisms called “near neighbors” that are abundant in outdoor environments….

The notion that such events — which Homeland Security calls BioWatch Actionable Results, or BARs — are not false alarms was earlier considered and rejected by a committee of experts appointed by the National Academy of Sciences.

In its report in October 2010, the committee said that “all BARs to date have been ‘BAR false positives,’ meaning they have signaled the potential occurrence of a terrorist attack when none has occurred.”

…One of the committee members, Northern Arizona University geneticist Paul Keim, said in an interview that the detection of a benign organism could not be considered a “true positive.”

“That’s why we call them near neighbors,” Keim said. “If they cause disease, we call them a pathogen.”

Garza, in his recent congressional testimony, said that the existence of the near neighbors had come as a surprise to Homeland Security and that the department was now seeking “more specific assays.”

How is the concept that many pathogens have close relatives than are not pathogens a “surprise?” Did they talk to any microbiologists? Because every microbiologist would have told DHS that they needed to worry about that.

Between this and letting people into the country who are on do-not-enter lists, it’s goddamn amateur hour at DHS.

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4 Responses to Is Our National Biodefense Really This Ignorant of Microbiology?

  1. It’s always been amateur hour at DHS. DHS has been nothing BUT amateur hour since its very inception. It’s long past time we end the farce, but unfortunately that’s political suicide.

  2. MarcoTolo says:

    As someone who has some knowledge of Biowatch (from the outside), no, its not really as bad as you think.,….It is, however, much, much worse than you can imagine. Biowatch is security theatre at the most ludicrous extreme: a project that looks like the government is “doing something” on paper, but completely and utterly absurd from a scientific or public health standpoint. Many of the standard methods they use would earn a beginning grad student a one way ticket to remedial education if they proposed them in a lab course.

  3. dr2chase says:

    I am, again, thankful that our adversary is not Doctor Evil, and is instead merely Mr. Evil (shoe bombs, flaming jockstraps, reusing phone SIM cards to save money). With a competent enemy we’d be in a heap of trouble.

  4. JohnV says:

    Dunno what to say. For 2 years I’ve been applying for various biodefense jobs, both with the government and private companies/contractors. I got a single interview in that time. Most recently I’m being rejected because people’s veterans preference puts them ahead of me.

    So that PhD in microbiology (with post-doc work on a DTRA-funded project and 2 years of a 2nd postdoc supported by a biodefense training grant) is clearly not what they’re looking for for employees. Maybe as a result we get people on these projects who are unaware that there’s lots of bacteria in existence.

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