US promotes tech development to find opioids in international mail

A Massachusetts company took the grand prize Dec. 12 in the Trump administration’s nearly yearlong challenge to the private sector to develop efficient, nonintrusive scanning technologies to intercept dangerous illicit drugs in international mail.

IDSS won $500,000 for its detection technology, while San Diego-based One Resonance took the runner-up prize of $250,000.

The Opioid Detection Challenge was announced in February. It awarded up to $1.55 million in cash prizes over two stages of technology development.

“This challenge brought our whole-of-government approach together with the private sector to find ways to stop the flow of deadly substances into our country which raise a grave national security concern,” said Jim Carroll, director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, in a statement.

Other participating government agencies included the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate and Customs and Border Protection (CPB), and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

Earlier this year, eight finalists in the challenge received $100,000 each and advanced to the next stage of the competition. Since June, finalists continued to develop their plans into prototypes that underwent vigorous testing at the Transportation Security Laboratory.

A judging panel of experts in forensic science, postal operations, drug interdiction and industrial engineering chose winners using selection criteria to identify technologies that will help intercept the flow of opioids through international mail.

The IDSS Detect 1000 system combines a 3D X-ray computed tomography (CT) scanner with automated detection algorithms to identify anomalies in X-ray images based on the scanned item’s features and physical properties.

One Resonance’s QROD system uses quadrupole resonance technology or radio-frequency signals to search for specific materials. An alarm is triggered when a signal associated with an illicit substance is detected.

The White House said DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate will continue to work with the companies to further develop their prototypes and reach production agreements.

The international mail system has become a conduit for smuggling illicit opioids into the U.S.

“In fiscal year 2019, our agents and officers seized nearly 2,600 pounds of fentanyl compared with 1,895 pounds in fiscal year 2018,” said CBP Deputy Commissioner Robert Perez. “This is an alarming 35% increase over the course of one year, and international mail has been one of the places that we are seeing illicit opioids come into the United States.”

On Dec. 12, CBP also announced the opening of a new satellite lab at Chicago O’Hare International Airport’s international mail hub. The lab is owned by the Food and Drug Administration and run by CBP’s Laboratories and Scientific Services.

CBP Executive Assistant Commissioner William Ferrara observes an FDA scientist demonstrate drug identification equipment in the new mobile lab at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport international mail hub. [Photo Credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection]

Currently, CBP officers who seize narcotics at the mail facility use a handheld analysis tool to identify the possible narcotics.

“The handheld device has a limited library, so if the test is inconclusive the officers would set it aside and it would be sent to the main lab for further testing,” CBP said. “With this new satellite location, CBP’s lab scientists are onsite and will be able to identify the narcotic faster. This means the narcotic is identified and CBP can send it off for destruction or adjudication.”

According to CBP, its Chicago Field Office led the country this year in drug seizures. About 20% of the mail entering the United States from overseas is processed through O’Hare’s international mail branch.