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About the BioWatch Program

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BioWatch is an early warning system designed to detect a large-scale, covert attack that releases anthrax or other agents of bioterrorism into the air. It is a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program that relies heavily on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), andstate and local public health laboratories.

The program was launched in January 2003 as the Nation was preparing for war, and it was intended to protect against threats of state-sponsored programs that may have had anthrax, smallpox, and botulinum, other agents. BioWatch deploys collectors in 34 of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas in outdoor locations, with indoor deployments in three sites, and special event capacity.

The collectors hold filters that continuously gather air samples. Every 24 hours, a government worker goes to these collectors, manually retrieves the filters, and takes them to a state or local laboratory for analysis and testing. If the lab testing shows a positive result, called a BioWatch Actionable Result (BAR) government officials review other evidence and information to decide if it is an actual attack, or just the detection of a bacteria in the environment that has similar DNA to the pathogen of concern.

Each BioWatch jurisdiction has a BioWatch Advisory Committee (BAC) made up of state, local and federal partners who are responsible for leading response efforts. In the case of a BAR, the BAC is informed within one hour of the declaration, followed within two hours by a National Conference Call. The National Conference Call brings together all the necessary state, local and federal response partners to determine whether the occurrence of a BAR is due to a potential act of bioterrorism, constitutes a threat to public health, or both. The National Conference Call also provides the federal government with situational awareness of potential resources that will be requested by the affected jurisdiction.

the BioWatch Program utilizes Jurisdictional Coordinators (JCs) to assist in the operation of the BACs, facilitate communications among state and local partners, assist in preparedness and response plan development, and to help coordinate exercise and special event planning (e.g., political conventions, major sporting events, and significant local events such as parades). This locally-embedded network of JCs provides jurisdictions and the BioWatch Program leadership with information regarding challenges encountered across jurisdictions serving to inform operational and programmatic directions.