Bush Launches Bioterrorism Monitoring Network

WASHINGTON, DC, January 23, 2003 (ENS) - Monitoring equipment capable of detecting smallpox, anthrax and other bioterrorism agents is being piggybacked onto an existing system of environmental monitors, the White House confirmed today.

The federal government began today to retrofit thousands of monitoring stations operated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer said.

"It's part of our precautions to protect the country," Fleischer said, noting that the project was not prompted by any information about a specific "impending" terrorist threat to the U.S.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have been working to refine and adapt some of the EPA's 3,000 air quality monitoring stations with advanced data analysis software that will help detect a release of a bioterror agent within 24 hours.

"The administration, through the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control, is moving forward with a program of monitoring," Fleischer said. "EPA will deploy these systems to major population centers throughout the country. CDC will monitor the equipment on a regular basis."

Funding for the program will come out of the new Department of Homeland Security, he added.

The "New York Times," which first reported the new system in its Wednesday editions, said the system is based on new air filtering equipment that will gather samples of airborne pollutants, including biological agents, on a "tissue like" paper. Samples of the paper will be forwarded each day to CDC laboratories for analysis, with results available with a day, and in some cases within 12 hours.

The CDC will test for bioterror agents using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) techniques to detect the unique genetic material associated with each type of pathogen, such as the virus that causes smallpox.

The system will be sensitive enough to detect very small amounts of bioterror agents, government officials said. The project is aimed at giving health officials additional time to deliver medicine, equipment and doctors to the site of a bioterror attack.