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Four years ago, a top Department of Homeland Security scientist reported a potential breakthrough in the government’s race to detect deadly pathogens spread by bioterrorists or nature — germs that could cause calamitous infections.

A Silicon Valley company called NVS Technologies appeared on track to build a portable device that would swiftly and accurately analyze air samples from sensors deployed nationwide, and determine whether they contained anthrax spores or other lethal germs.

"NVS has done a tremendous job in fulfilling our requirements,’’ Segaran Pillai, Homeland Security’s chief medical and science advisor, wrote in a seven-page internal report dated June 13, 2013. He recommended continued funding for NVS "to ensure a successful outcome for the Nation.’’

But the promising project was abruptly halted in February 2014 — six months before NVS engineers were due to deliver prototypes. A new acting division director at Homeland Security terminated the NVS contract for "convenience,” a legal term that gives the government broad leeway in oversight of its contracts.

More than three years later, Homeland Security has yet to find a reliable way to quickly detect biowarfare agents and the cause of unusual disease outbreaks, a key vulnerability in the defenses hastily erected after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

The contract dispute with NVS now is headed to court. A three-day trial is scheduled to start on Sept. 12 in Washington before an administrative law judge of the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals. A decision may not be issued for weeks.

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