LA Times to BioWatch: Bend over and drop your shorts

The Los Angeles Times has an endless article trying to make a scandal out of a simple technical constraint: the tools we use to test for biological agents aren’t perfect.  Sometimes the machines go off because of a natural event rather than a terrorist attack (“Test says tularemia; somebody put another rabbit through a woodchipper,” I was once told when I was in government). Knowing about the risk of these “false positives” means that officials must choose between the risk of overreacting or of underreacting whenever an alarm goes off. And at the same time the tests may not be sensitive enough to catch every terrorist attack.

That makes our BioWatch program remarkably similar to PSA tests for prostate cancer:  plenty of false positives and false negatives, and a lot of accurate warnings as well.  I guess it’s not surprising that some people would like to do to BioWatch what they’d like to do to PSA tests:  stop gathering the information so that they don’t have to agonize over what to do once they have it. Except that with PSA testing, most of the agonizing is done by a very large group of men, and followup tests and treatments can have a big cost if nothing is really wrong.  In the case of BioWatch, though, the cost of the agonizing mainly falls on government officials, who naturally resent being forced to make high-profile decisions that could turn out to be wrong.  For the rest of us, though, the backstage agonizing and multiple tests are pretty low-cost, and they could have a big payoff if they give government several days’ headstart in reacting to a bioterror attack when it comes.

I’d love to have a better solution (in fact, the Gen3 approach that LAT criticizes is at least somewhat better), but why in the world would we kill the program entirely, as the LAT seems to be suggesting?  Sure, we’d spare all those poor officials some agonizing over test results; they would be as bone ignorant as the rest of us if and when an attack came.  A lot of people might be dead, but they’d be safe from blame.

I can see why that might appeal to the Centers for Disease Control, but what’s in it for the rest of us?