By Maureen Balleza
On Oct. 5, 2001, shortly after the confirmation of the first fatality from inhalation anthrax, a team from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California piled onto a C-130 transport plane with their lab equipment and supplies for a 10-hour flight to Washington, D.C.
The team, including bioinformatics lead Tom Slezak, comprised an interesting mix of skills. In addition to biologists trained in specialized laboratory testing, there were mathematicians, statisticians and software engineers. Their mission was clear-cut and urgent: install a system for continual, reliable environmental surveillance for various airborne pathogens and do it immediately.
They installed a complex system that was up and running within two days, and the laboratory monitoring the results has been in continuous operation ever since.
Slezak recounted this anecdote at his recent visit to the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch as the latest guest lecturer in the Topics in Biosecurity Symposia. The series of lectures features experts at the forefront of biosecurity development and implementation.
For Slezak, the release of a pathogen in the Tokyo subway in 1993 put public health and security officials on notice that an airborne attack was possible. The threat of a mass aerosol attack at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, where large international crowds would be spread over a huge area indoors and out, prompted the call to develop a system to detect aerosol pathogens.
The Department of Energy national labs, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratory, in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency and in coordination with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were given the task of developing the program — called the Biological Aerosol Sentry and Information System, or BASIS.
For many years, its very existence remained in the shadows. The premise of the program is that early detection of an attack, before symptoms are exhibited, will provide enough time to distribute appropriate countermeasures.
Some of the challenges in creating the program included making sure there were zero false positives and an ironclad “chain of custody” demanded by the FBI for potential criminal prosecution.
“Every single thing, from filters to tubing to bags were barcoded,” said Slezak. “Everything is automatic so there is no room for human error.” The system enabled them to go back and track every step in the chain. He said some of his team used to joke they themselves should have their personal barcode tattooed for easier scanning.
The system is still in use today, and Slezak, who has a master’s degree in computer science, said he’s particularly pleased — it’s rare for code to still be in use after a decade. He said with his degree, he never expected to someday be involved in biological research as a career.
After 9/11, BASIS was declared a national asset and monitoring was deployed in a number of cities across the country to sample for a small number of high-threat pathogens. The cities and pathogens remain undisclosed.
The program is known today as BioWatch, an insurance policy against large-scale attack. Deployed in more than 30 metropolitan areas throughout the country, BioWatch is a collaborative effort of health personnel at all levels of government.
Slezak explained how to navigate the bureaucracies involved at the federal, state and local levels and among the competing jurisdictions and law enforcement agencies. “All science is political,” he said, adding that communications skills and people skills are also required for success.
The symposia series features experts at the forefront of biosecurity policy development and implementation. As the only active biosafety level four research program underway on a U.S. academic campus, the program seeks to ensure students, staff and faculty have maximum participation in this ongoing discussion.