COVID-19 exposes global biosecurity systems as 'fractured' - expert

There are calls for a new approach to biosecurity that recognises disease or invasions in one sector often spill over into others.
There are calls for a new approach to biosecurity that recognises disease or invasions in one sector often spill over into others. Photo credit: Getty

By Riley Kennedy of RNZ

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a fractured global biosecurity system and a new approach is needed, a biosecurity expert says.

The paper by distinguished professor Philip Hulme from the Government-funded Bio-Protection Research Centre has been published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal BioScience.

Hulme said COVID-19 had shown there needed to be an approach to biosecurity that integrated threats to human, animal, plant and environmental health, recognising that disease or invasions in one sector often spilled over into the others.

He said the COVID Tracer app and the National Animal Idenification and Tracing (NAIT) system, were two examples of where lessons can be learnt and shared among different industries.

"We've known in animal health that the NAIT system has not worked very well so it shouldn't surprise us that the national human tracing system has also found problems," Hulme said.

"Understanding that beforehand might make sure we're not producing over-optimistic scenarios of how we might manage something like COVID.

"So, that is where we could do a lot better by linking both the primary industries and the health sector together."

In another example, the red fire ant caused significant impacts on human and livestock health due to its painful sting but it also directly destroyed crops at the seedling stage and dramatically reduced the diversity of native invertebrates through predation, Hulme said.

"This species has been intercepted multiple times at the New Zealand border and if it established the impacts would be felt across numerous sectors," he said.

Hulme also said it was time for the global biosecurity system to shift away from protecting individual countries and towards preventing the deliberate or accidental export of emerging threats from their country of origin.

In his paper, Hulme called for a stronger regulatory instrument to address biosecurity threats at a worldwide scale and the establishment of an overarching organisation responsible for international biosecurity governance.

Hulme noted New Zealand did not have to wait for global agreement to implement a more holistic biosecurity system nationally.

"Nation states such as New Zealand and Australia that already have strong biosecurity regulations could lead the way in developing national One Biosecurity frameworks which, if successful, could catalyse other nations to follow suit."

The Bio-Protection Research Centre is a Centre of Research Excellence funded by the New Zealand government until 30 June 2021. It was established in 2003 to drive innovation in sustainable approaches to pest, pathogen and weed control.