Better, Faster Answers

The frequency of "white powder" incidents is increasing the demand for broad-spectrum screening to be performed in the field.

Editor's note: "White powder" incidents continue to occur in the United States, largely at mailrooms. U.S. Postmaster General John E. Potter asked Congress in April for $51 million for security costs associated with a Biohazard Defense System, a Ventilation and Filtration System, and a mail sanitization facility to be located in Washington, D.C. First responders and some corporate security directors are clamoring for fast, reliable detection kits they can use against these threats, said Buck Somes, vice president of sales and marketing for GenPrime Inc. ( of Spokane, Wash. GenPrime announced in March that the United States Postal Inspection Service had selected its Prime Alert® Biodetection System, placing one in each of its Regional Response Vehicle. Somes discussed detection technologies, first responders' funding, and other issues in a May 4, 2005, conversation with Occupational Health & Safety's editor. Excerpts from the conversation follow.

How much domestic demand is there for field test kits that can quickly and accurately detect biowarfare agents?

Buck Somes: The demand for quick and accurate biodetection field kits is actually pretty astounding. Equipment like that isn't reserved solely for metropolitan or local hazmat teams and huge corporate mailrooms, because that's not where all of the suspicious powder incidents are occurring. Every day, U.S. response personnel attend to powder threats ranging from small-town post offices all the way up to the Pentagon.

They still occur with pretty high frequency?

Somes: Definitely. In fact, I've got a mailing list you should go to if you're interested []. It's quite amazing how many calls are still occurring all over the country. . . . The majority of the incidents reported and talked about are bomb threats; I'd say it's about 30 percent powder scares and about 60 percent bomb threats.

You mentioned it's not just metropolitan areas and the big corporate mailrooms, but is that a lot of the market for detection technologies?

Somes: That's kind of the big, multi-user market for these things. But we have our kits all over, from the very small communities that want to have the most comprehensive solution in their toolbox, to the biggest cities that have every tool in the world--and they want more.

What's happening with the funding of these potential and actual customers these days? They're getting it from DHS?

Somes: Most of it is federal funding. It's hard to say exactly what's happening to the first responders' funding; it's actually a whole other story altogether that you might be interested in; a lot of people have been writing about it.

This stuff is funded for first responders by the Department of Homeland Security. And the way it works is, it goes to the state level, states have to get some grant money from DHS. And when the states get the money, then they have to dole it out--80 percent or something--to local first responders. Then those guys have to apply for the money. A lot of our orders that we get are being purchased on funding that they're just now getting from 2002 and 2003.

The U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security--Christopher Cox of California until recently was the chair--has been holding hearings. He really acted as though he intended to hold DHS's feet to the fire, and also states' feet to the fire, to get money into first responders' hands much better than has been done before.

Somes: I think it's both. We've run into issues with states that are holding onto the money and not getting it to the first responders. We've even run into regions that hold onto the money and don't get it to the people who really need it. And then we also run into states that are having problems getting the money from DHS. It's kind of all over the board. I think that they're getting a lot more money, but they're also trying to play a little bit of catch-up, which is trying to spend some of the money on things they haven't had for a long time. Face masks and personal protective equipment, things like that.

They have to ramp up everything they need at the same time?

Somes: Exactly. What they are typically doing is prioritizing what they need first.

Where do these detection kits fit in?

Somes: These detection kits fit in basically after they get the gear they need to protect themselves. The very basic hazmat team has to get the gear they need to protect themselves to go into a hot zone, collect a sample, and put it in a bag. That's the basic. So that's what a lot of folks have done for the past couple of years.

Now, it's to the point where a lot of these hoaxes are costing a lot of money, and they could be mitigated right at the scene. That's another whole controversy that comes in with federal agencies and CDC.

I don't understand. What's that other controversy?

Somes: The controversy is with the CDC and folks like that who are a little concerned with first responders doing on-site testing. The fact of the matter is first responders are doing it anyway because they're in the business of helping to protect their communities.

That's something they've traditionally done anyway: They've sized up a scene and tried to determine right off the bat what they're dealing with.

Somes: Right, and that is what they're doing. And it's not right for the CDC and any of these bigger federal agencies to come in and tell them what not to do to protect their communities.

Is it possible CDC and the others don't know what the capabilities of the technologies are?

Somes: I think they do. They're doing a good job of looking closer at everything.

What kinds of technologies have first responders been using up to now? What newer technologies are available that they're acquiring?

Somes: After 9/11, you had all the anthrax scares. Anthrax became the one thing that everybody was a little bit afraid of--actually, a lot afraid of. Not only were there real incidents, which put everybody on huge alert, and people died; there were also a lot of hoaxes. That's kind of what crippled a lot of first responders and crippled the laboratory response networks.

The tools that were available right out of the gates were tests specifically for anthrax. And there are a few companies out there that sell tests that are for specific agents.

Are those generally field units that give you a real-time answer?

Somes: Pretty much. They typically take about 15 minutes per agent. It depends on how many agents you're testing for, how long you're going to be there. There's one company out there that has test strips -- they're like home pregnancy strips--for seven different agents, five or six of which are bacteria.

CDC lists 13 bacteria as potential weapons, that can be weaponized. So going in and just testing for those specific agents, you're left with inadequate information on which to close an incident. If you're only testing for seven, then there's six other ones it could be.

In fact, there's a lot more than that because the other things those won't detect are the genetically engineered bacteria. We're talking about the whack job in his basement who's inserting lethal genes into nice bacteria.

And that's feasible these days?

Somes: Yes. The same is the case with another technology used called the polymerase chain reaction. It's a way of amplifying a specific piece of DNA. Anthrax has a signature piece of DNA; with PCR, you can amplify that piece of DNA, make a ton of copies of it, to the point where you can see it when you add a fluorescent dye to it. Theoretically, if you use the PCR test for that agent, like anthrax, and you end up getting a signal in 30 to 40 minutes, then anthrax was present.

That's a pretty good test in that you don't get a lot of false positives with it. It's a pretty expensive test for starting up, but more than that, it requires a lot of technical skill. It's really a test that's better designed for the laboratory. There are a few field versions out there, but they're not gaining a lot of traction.

Our test approaches the whole situation a different way, which is looking at a potential threat with a broad-spectrum screen. Basically, you get a white powder in an envelope [and] don't know what it is, you can test it with our system and in less than 15 minutes determine whether there are any microbes there at all, or ricin or botulinum toxins.

What we're doing is saying, forget just testing for anthrax initially. Because if I get a negative with that, I really don't have that much information. With a broad-spectrum bacterial screen, if I get a negative result, I've just categorically ruled out bacteria as the potential threat.

How quickly are results obtained with yours?

Somes: The microbe screen, that's the real key to our test--the one that looks for all bacteria, and some viruses, too--that test takes less than five minutes. Then we've got test strips . . . for ricin and botulinum. The reason for that is, our test is a DNA-based test, so we use a fluorescent dye molecule that binds to something universally found in bacteria. And when it binds to the target, it starts to fluoresce and we can measure that fluorescence.

Toxins like ricin and botulinum are proteins, so our test does not pick up on those. We added those two tests to our kit to make it a real comprehensive test. Because if you get a negative with our microbe screen, how do you know it might not be one of those toxins?

We have talked with lots of first responders and folks out in the field, and the more comprehensive a system they can have in one box, the better.

How does it compare with the others in cost, in portability, in accuracy?

Somes: The PCR type tests, the startup costs for those are anywhere between $30,000 and $50,000 to buy the equipment, and then it's about $25 to $30 per test. With the immunoassay test strips, you can buy a piece of equipment that is a reader, and then also the tests. The start-up costs on those are typically around $8,000 to $12,000. Each test is $25. The consumables are about the same. With [ours], start-up cost is right there in the $8,000 to $12,000 range, and the complete screen is $135 retail.

So if you looked at the immunoassay test strips, there are seven they can use, and you're talking $25 per--that's $175 per incident. . . . Same with the PCR. I think there are six different organisms they can test for with PCR. Now, one advantage to PCR is they can actually test for certain viruses better than most other tests.

With PCR, it's really great in a laboratory setting. But you get out in the field and you start sampling off of someone's desk, or the ground, or something like that, there are a lot of things in the environment that can interfere with that reaction occurring--the amplification process. For instance, if any heavy metals are in the sample and they get into the PCR test, it often will come up with "indeterminate results."

Is there a finite universe of potential biowarfare agents, or are CDC, DHS, and others concerned about a growing list of substances? Which agents of concern pose the greatest risk, and which are fairly low-risk?

Somes: Quite the opposite: There is an infinite number of potential biowarfare agents that could pose a threat. As I mentioned earlier, CDC has recognized 13 naturally occurring biological agents of concern, but equal importance should be placed on genetically engineered biowarfare agents that could pose the same or even a greater threat than known substances.

Is speed the most important thing to first responders? It's not cost, I assume; speed and accuracy are what they most need?

Somes: It's speed and accuracy for first responders because they want to get in and get out. They want to get in and try to get people back to work as soon as possible.

Is the same true in corporate settings?

Somes: I think it's both. It's also cost. . . . It's hard to determine whether it's a corporate security expense, or operations. When you get into corporate security, one of the things we've run into is, there's not a lot of funds allocated to something that's not tangible.

You mean in terms of a threat?

Somes: Yes. Corporations tend to put money toward the bottom line, and it's hard to say how something like this would affect the bottom line. But the reality of the situation is, a high percentage of terrorist incidents have been against businesses. Look at the World Trade Center. Businesses are probably the main target of terrorism. . . . It's something that they really do need to be prepared for, because one incident shutting down a large corporation for a number of hours is a lot of money.

This kind of equipment is really designed for those white-powder incidents that, I'm telling you, have shut down so many businesses. The U.S. Postal Service has shut down over 30,000 facilities since 9/11 because of powder scares. The statistic is that each one of those incidents was an average of a four-hour shutdown.

That cost is enormous, I'm sure.

Somes: Ten thousand bucks an hour. . . . For that kind of an incident, those white-powder scares, the majority are going through their mailrooms, right? That's really where the point of detection should be and the point of mitigation. And a lot of mailrooms across the country are just now starting to beef up that type of security and the tools they have to help mitigate those situations.

A letter goes out to a CEO that has a powder in it, and it gets all the way up to the top floor to his desk in the corner office. That shouldn't happen these days. So the security really should be starting there--and that's what a lot of folks are starting to do.

Is there international demand, and can these kits be exported?

Somes: Absolutely. We have kits protecting civilians and government agencies around the world. It's been deployed in the Defense Forces of Ireland, Singapore Civil Defense, and the Spanish military. We get inquiries from all over the world; there are some places we don't respond to.

This article appears in the July 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the July 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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