- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

During his State of the Union address, President Bush pointed out that America is now deploying "the nation's first early warning network of sensors to detect biological attack." Details of that warning system have recently come to light, and while there are a few potential missteps, the administration appears to have set the right course.

Two different systems are now being set up. One, named Bio-Watch, is a nationwide system of environmental monitors under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, which will "sniff" the air for germs of bioterror, such as the smallpox virus or the anthrax bacteria. The other, led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), will serve as a sort of "germ net." It will monitor health databases in eight major cities probably including Washington, D.C. for signs of disease outbreaks such as emergency-room visits and physician reports.

Even though these systems are just getting started, there are a number of concerns, both technical and legal. On the technical side, those in charge of Bio-Watch will have to take great care to screen out "false positives" false detections of biological attacks before they cause unnecessary alarm. Privacy is the largest concern in the health-monitoring system. While those in charge of the system claim that individuals will be tracked by their symptoms, gender, ages and area codes rather than names or identifiers, privacy rights have not been guaranteed. The "germ-net" system will have to be watched carefully to ensure that the rights of citizens are respected, and the administration's decision to move it from under control of the Pentagon to control of the CDC seems reasonable in that regard.

Regardless, national-security necessities would seem to trump technical and legal concerns. Even under the best conditions, epidemiology is a difficult, time-consuming business, as the outbreaks of Norwalk virus on Carnival Cruise liners so aptly demonstrated last month. Each minute saved in detection is another minute health professionals have to save lives and prevent a national emergency. As the New York Times story that reported the existence of the health data monitoring network noted, "In detecting attacks, a head start of even a day or two can greatly lower death rates by letting doctors treat rapidly and prevent an isolated outbreak from becoming an epidemic." In an extreme scenario, an attack of smallpox, there is only a three-day window of time in which the vaccine can be successfully applied.

Despite this necessity for early detection, no such monitoring networks had previously been set up. While Bio-Watch may be limited to monitoring for possible terrorist attacks, the health-data monitoring network may have additional utility in tracking down outbreaks of natural diseases as well.

It's no wonder that experts at the Heritage Foundation named the building of such an early detection network their top priority in their recommendations for strengthening civil defense against terrorism in a report on homeland security last year. There's little doubt that when both systems are fully operational in scenting germs in the air, Americans will have a reason to breath just a bit easier.

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