New System to Quickly Detect, Warn of Bioterrorism Signals


North Carolina will be the national model for a new system to detect the earliest signs of an impending bioterrorism attack and provide warnings in time to minimize damage to human and animal life as well as the environment.

The model, called North Carolina Bio-Preparedness Collaborative (NCB-Prepared), will alert health officials and practitioners within hours of symptom outbreaks that might indicate a bioterrorist attack, threat of disease, foodborne illness or other threats to public health and safety.

The congressionally funded one-year, $5 million project is a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Initial collaborators include UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and SAS Institute. The effort includes participation of the N.C. Division of Public Health and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Durham, as well as others from the public and private sectors.

Rep. David Price, D-NC, chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, was instrumental in bringing together experts in threat detection, data collection and dissemination, emergency preparedness and computer analytics to develop a model early warning system. He also sponsored a measure in Congress to provide a $5 million grant to fund the NCB-Prepared project. As subcommittee chairman, Price has examined various approaches to detecting and responding to biological threats.

“The goal of this groundbreaking effort is to save lives in the event of a major biological event, whether naturally occurring or manmade – to provide reliable early detection of an event and to inform a successful response by our public health system,” Price said. “In North Carolina, we have the advantage of state-of-the-art health information systems and unparalleled collaboration among institutions that will be brought to bear in this ambitious effort.”

The project was launched today at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. Speakers included Price; Tom McGinn, senior health advisor, office of health affairs, U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Lanier Cansler, secretary, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services; Tony Waldrop, vice chancellor for research and economic development, UNC-Chapel Hill; and Warwick Arden, provost, NC State.

Charles B. Cairns, MD, professor and chair, UNC department of emergency medicine, and Marc Hoit, PhD, vice chancellor for information technology and chief information officer, NC State, are project co-principal investigators.

NCB-Prepared will draw on a wide array of human health data (such as physician’s clinical notes, electronic hospital records, school nurse logs, prescription databases and over-the-counter medication sales) and information from the rest of the biosphere (such as animal health records, air quality measurements and food safety data). Using advanced analytical programs, the project aims to detect a public health threat long before it would surface in traditional disease surveillance systems. The project builds on existing state surveillance capabilities such as NC-DETECT, one of the most advanced surveillance systems in the country, which analyzes hospital emergency room and other data several times a day.

Cairns and Hoit said the program emerged from the urgent need for faster recognition and more effective response to biological diseases and threats.

“Federal and state agencies are aware that the U.S. does not currently have sufficient ability to accurately detect and quickly analyze biological hazards to ensure public health and safety,” they said. “Biosecurity depends on bio-preparedness.”

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