PORTLAND, Ore. A bipartisan commission warned Congress that a biological weapon attack in the U.S. is likely within the next five years, and recommended that President-elect Barack Obama expand federal efforts for early detection of water- and airborne pathogens.
"Our margin of safety is shrinking, not growing," the panel concluded in a report. Lab-on-a-chip technology that could sense biological agents also could provide early detection of bioterrorism attacks. So far, however, the commission found that deployment of the technology has been downplayed.
"I have heard from sources familiar with MEMS devices that microfluidic labs on-a-chip have already been deployed in major cities to detect biological weapons," said MEMS industry analyst Marlene Bourne. Bourne said the deployment "makes sense because if these devices are in place then the authorities wouldn't want to tip our hand with publicity."
So far, lab-on-a-chip technology has been focused on detecting only a single biological pathogen, since the reagents necessary to sense bio-agents are peculiar to each type. Recently, however, the Office of Naval Research launched a program to build a hospital-on-a-chip that could detect different medical conditions, opening the door to building similar early-warning chips that could detect a wide variety of possible bioweapons.
Anthrax is still considered the most likely agent to be used in a bioterror attack along with viruses for which there is no known cure.
The Commission recommended that the incoming Obama administration appoint an expert to the National Security Council who would be responsible for coordinating U.S. and foreign intelligence on preventing nuclear and biological terrorist attacks.