First responders continually receive calls of suspicious materials that are potentially biothreat agents. Obtaining high confidence data from biological assessments of suspicious materials in the field remains a challenge. NIST is working in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T) to develop methods, guidance, standards, and reference materials to support and improve our Nation's ability to detect and respond to suspected biothreat incidents.
Since 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks in 2001, suspicious white powder incidents occur almost daily within the US with > 40,000 incidents requiring Federal law enforcement response. Suspect samples are sent to public health laboratories for confirmatory evaluation, which can take hours to weeks to receive results. A rapid assessment of suspect samples is needed to enable critical on-site decision-making (e.g., should the subway station be evacuated, or should shelter-in-place be implemented). Nationwide response protocols vary in technology and resources deployed, and results from any deployed technology can have inconsistent quality due in part to the absence of third-party validation. These issues contribute to a lack of confidence in results from fielded biodetection technologies and limit the routine use of field screening to support decision-making.
NIST is helping to address these issues by developing the needed documentary standards, reference materials, and measurement methods. Overall, this work contributes to the development of a larger infrastructure to increase confidence in fielded biothreat detection and biosurveillance. Moving forward, these efforts will be leveraged in the development of reference materials with greater complexity (e.g., more than one species) to serve as a microbial background and challenge material for emerging detection platforms.
Activities and projects include: