- Associated Press - Friday, August 26, 2011

LIVERMORE, CALIF. (AP) - Just hours after the first death in the 2001 anthrax attacks, Tom Slezak was told to gather his team, collect his gear and get on a plane.

The longtime Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory biodefense researcher landed at Andrews Air Force Base outside the nation’s capital and immediately realized he was on the front lines of a new type of war.

“We were met by a colonel in the Army,” Slezak recalled. “He said, `Our nation is at war. And you’ve been drafted.’”

For decades, federal research labs like Lawrence Livermore had served as the government’s Cold War research and development division. After Sept. 11, those same labs transformed themselves to invent new lines of defense against new terror threats, developing a nationwide system to sniff the air for germs such as anthrax and smallpox.

Slezak and other government researchers created the airborne pathogen early warning system known as Biowatch that is now deployed in about 30 cities across the country and has become a hidden fixture in the country’s post-September 11 urban landscape. The program is designed to alert authorities of a release of deadly germs even before patients start showing up sick. This would allow affected areas to be evacuated, and potentially infected people could get drugs and vaccines.

The system works via detectors mounted in secret locations near potential high-profile targets such as stadiums and subways. They suck city air through filters that technicians collect daily and test for the DNA of dangerous bacteria and viruses.

To keep potential terrorists from dodging Biowatch’s defenses, officials keep secret how many detectors monitor the air in each city, what the detectors look like and how many different pathogens they guard against. The list of cities themselves is also secret, though officials say Washington and New York are among those monitored. In all, the system covers about 80 percent of the U.S. population, Slezak said.

So far Biowatch has raised several alerts about the possible presence of malicious microbes. The day after a 2005 anti-war protest on the Washington Mall, for example, the system detected the bacterium that causes tularemia, a potentially fatal respiratory illness. But in each case, further testing found that germs had occurred naturally _ and no public alarm was sounded.

To be effective, Biowatch must turn out test results quickly _ and never be wrong, researchers said.

If bad information led to a shutdown of an Olympic Games or a presidential inaugural, they said, that would destroy trust in the system, making the country more vulnerable to a real attack.

“We have to be able to make millions of measurements and never have a single false positive measurement,” said David Rakestraw, who manages Lawrence Livermore’s weapons of mass destruction countermeasures program.

Work on Biowatch began even before the Sept. 11 attacks as a way to provide biosecurity for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The system had undergone just one test run before Slezak was summoned to Washington in the midst of the anthrax crisis to set up the detectors for their first real-life use.

Lab technicians on 12-hour shifts worked around the clock for weeks as anthrax powder sent through the mail ultimately claimed five lives.

Slezak remembers being pulled from the lab to see an unfolding drama on television. With chagrin, he watched as workers ran from the Hart Senate Office Building after anthrax powder was discovered in an envelope sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

“That was just kind of one of those `duh’ moments where you realize you can’t always pick what the most probable threat is going to be,” he said.

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