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Hazmat Responders to Get Help in Biodetection

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) recently completed an evaluation of nearly three dozen field biodetection products and performed over 5,000 tests to assess their ability to accurately detect anthrax and ricin, which are potential biothreat agents that could be encountered during suspected bioterror or suspicious powder responses.

 “Independent testing of field biological detection and analysis equipment has been a major hole in our national bioterrorism response capability and strategy,” said David Ladd, director of hazmat response for Massachusetts (retired) and independent counterterrorism consultant.  

 Biological indicator tests like protein were not very sensitive and found to produce numerous false positives with benign powders. Immunoassays performed well for detection of these biothreat agents and were generally better for detection of ricin vs. anthrax, although extensive testing with near-neighbor organisms that could give false positive results was not done.  Fieldable PCR systems, while designed for detecting organisms rather than toxins, were also tested and could detect thousands of times lower amounts of anthrax than immunoassays, although PCR assays can take 30-60 minutes.  Most fieldable polymerase chain reaction (PCR) systems gave no false-positive results with common powders or near-neighbor organisms. 

The PNNL findings are also published in Health Security to help guide first responder organizations in field biodetection product procurement and to improve their understanding of product potential limitations.

Mr. Ladd noted the impact and value of the findings: “Validated performance capabilities of this equipment allow us to move forward in building a capability by purchasing and deploying devices that gain acceptance by other stakeholders in the bioterrorism response community.”

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Steven Ilchishin, Program Specialist, IAFC Hazmat Center, contributed to this post.


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