Biodetection: Today, Tomorrow & Years Later

Because of the notorious anthrax-laden letters mailed out shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers – and several other bio-warfare incidents that have occurred since then – a debate has raged throughout much of the U.S. homeland-security community about field testing and a host of other issues related to the biological threats that threaten U.S. cities, counties, and other jurisdictions on a continuing basis each and every day of the year.

Unfortunately – and despite numerous “official reports,” private-sector recommendations, and political mandates citing an urgent need to develop a much improved bio-detection capability – there is still no truly national bio-detection strategy in place to cope with future bio-warfare incidents that could occur at almost any time, in any community throughout the nation. In large part because of this extended inertia, U.S. private-sector and public health agencies – many of which still rely, to a large extent, on outdated technology to track and identify bio-warfare agents and substances – are hampered by delayed diagnoses, which in turn lead to delayed responses that facilitate a more rapid spread of the possible agents involved in any bio-warfare incident, accidental or manmade.

Nonetheless, U.S. bio-detection technology has in fact actually improved, significantly, during the past decade, and several new methods of detection and response are now either currently available, or in various stages of development, that are not only both rapid and sensitive but also have the ability to identify, sometimes simultaneously, a broad range of biological agents. Here it should be noted, though, that most if not quite all of these recent improvements have depended primarily on the development of strong working relationships between and among first-responder agencies, the nation’s public health laboratories (PHLs), numerous law-enforcement organizations and agencies, and the work being carried on by the Laboratory Response Network (LRN) – a broad spectrum of APHL (Association of Public Health Laboratories) and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) laboratories. Without the solid working relationships that have been developed between and among these disparate entities, any “deployment models” of new and even more advanced field-detection instruments or devices would probably be ineffective.

Visual Observation, Protein Test Kits & Operational Consistency

Quick and accurate biological detection depends primarily on the full use of a continuum of technologies ranging from “the basics” – e.g., visual observation, protein test kits, and pH (the term used to measure the acidity or basicity of a solution) readings – to such higher-order systems and methods as lateral-flow immunoassay test strips, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) instruments and devices, and mass spectroscopy.

Among several major issues that have stalled or at least slowed down the development and deployment of even the most basic biological detection instruments is the understandable position of public health laboratories that the detection instruments used in the field should possess the same range of capabilities as those used in the laboratories, both public and private. The PHLs have in fact asked that field instruments possess the same sensitivity and specificity as the instruments that they use in their own labs.

Another major issue hampering additional and/or more rapid progress is the fact that many manufacturers are finding it difficult to design, test, develop, and produce instruments possessing sensitivity and specificity capabilities comparable to those of similar instruments and devices used in the laboratories. Many manufacturers also are finding it difficult to meet such operational goals for their wares as simplicity of use, limited or no major maintenance problems, usability in a broad spectrum of weather conditions – including very high humidity and extreme temperatures – and a number of training issues that have also slowed progress.

All of these problems, and a few others that might be mentioned, have proved to be virtually insurmountable for many manufacturers. At present, in fact, it seems probable that there may be no single system, instrument, or device that meets all of the requirements, and/or expectations, of the PHLs for responders to possess the ability to carry out field detections both safely and effectively.

To briefly summarize: It has been pointed out many times in the past that – although the field-detection technologies, kits, systems, and devices now in use were not specifically designed to provide the same definitive results available when laboratory instruments are used – they still must be highly reliable in terms of expectancy, sensitivity, and specificity. The need and desire are both abundantly clear, therefore. Whether the new systems now or soon to be in the design/development/test & production pipeline will meet the ambitious goals set for them, though, is still somewhat uncertain. 

Glen Rudner
Glen Rudner

Glen Rudner retired in 2022 as a manager of environmental operations for the Norfolk Southern (NS) Railway with environmental compliance and operations responsibilities in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Previously, he was the hazardous materials compliance officer for NS’s Alabama Division (covering Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and southwestern Tennessee). Prior to NS, he served as one of the general managers at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, Colorado. He worked as a private consultant and retired as a hazardous materials response officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. He has nearly 42 years of experience in public safety. He spent 12 years as a career firefighter/hazardous materials specialist for the City of Alexandria Fire Department, as well as a former volunteer firefighter, emergency medical technician, and officer. As a subcontractor, he served as a consultant and assisted in developing training programs for local, state, and federal agencies. He serves as secretary for the National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Hazardous Materials Response. He is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Hazardous Materials Committee, a member of the American Society of Testing and Materials, and a former co-chairman of the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition. He served as a member of the FEMA NAC RESPONSE Subcommittee.



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