Cosmos Q&A: Future biosecurity challenges

A new CSIRO reportAustralia’s Biosecurity Future, looks at what the nation’s biosecurity aims should be over the next 10 years and the steps needed to get there. 

Cosmos spoke with senior principal research scientist Andy Sheppard, who has worked on invasive species management in France and Australia since 1986. 

Most Australians probably shelter under the view that our biosecurity controls are pretty good: we don’t have some of the serious agricultural diseases and pests that affect other countries, for instance. Is that not the case? How does Australia’s biosecurity regime compare to those in other countries?

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Andy Sheppard. Credit: CSIRO

Our biosecurity system protects us from diseases, invasive species, pests and weeds that pose a risk to our ecosystem, agricultural sector and food security. It’s critical to supporting the health of Australians, our environment and the competitiveness of key export industries.

Australia has a strong biosecurity system. We have robust border control, strong regulations and world-class animal health laboratories — such as CSIRO’s Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP) — with innovative research and development (R&D) capability. We also have the natural advantage of being an island continent, which stops invasive species and diseases from just spreading over an arbitrary national boundary.

Our biosecurity system is incredibly important. It protects environmental assets worth over $6.5 trillion dollars and saves industry billions of dollars a year. Australia wants to grow more than $100 billion worth of farm-gate produce by 2020. That’s only possible if we have the biosecurity to protect our crops and livestock.

Biosecurity also stops financially devastating events. A multi-state foot and mouth disease outbreak, for instance, would cost Australia an estimated $50 billion in outbreak management in industry losses.

Our biosecurity system has a legacy of protecting Australians, our ecosystems and the industries we rely on. Despite this it still can’t handle the sheer number and complexity of challenges that are coming its way. That is, unless it adapts. Australia’s Biosecurity Future outlines a plan for how it can do that.

In terms of threats, what’s changed (and/or is continuing to change) in Australia’s biosecurity regime? Is COVID-19 – or more broadly, infectious diseases in human that originate from animals – an important consideration?

Outbreaks across human, agriculture, environment and marine health are continuing to rise in volume and complexity. Between 2012 and 2017, the annual number of interceptions of biosecurity risk materials at Australian borders rose by almost 50%. There are numerous factors behind this. They include growing levels of trade and travel, urbanisation, climate change, biodiversity loss and antimicrobial resistance.

Australia’s Biosecurity Future builds on a report CSIRO published in 2014. It identified 12 potential biosecurity threats Australia faced, one of those being the outbreak of a zoonotic disease. These are diseases which originate in animals before spreading to humans. A zoonotic outbreak has now occurred in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 is a stark reminder of why biosecurity is so important. It underlines how human, animal and environmental health are all interconnected. How a weakness in one is a vulnerability for all.

Zoonotic diseases are an increasing threat. At least 75% of emerging human infectious diseases are also zoonotic. Just in the past 20 years we’ve had SARS, MERS, and H1N1 (swine flu). There will be more.

How different diseases impact us often depends on the circumstances. How contagious is it? How fatal? When did we catch it? How long did it take for a vaccine to become available? COVID-19 has obviously been a deeply traumatic experience around the world, with more than 46 million diagnoses and 1.2 million deaths. The pandemic has increased the public’s awareness of how crucial biosecurity really is, and the need in Australia for a fit for purpose biosecurity system. It really demonstrates the need to transform Australia’s biosecurity system so it can cope with the growing volume and complexity of threats.

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Credit: CSIRO

The report cites a desired “transformational trajectory” for our biosecurity regime through to 2030, with the end result an Australia that’s recognised as “the most biosecure trading partner globally”. What do we need to do to get from where we are now to that point?

We need to generate greater efficiencies and effectiveness in our biosecurity system by taking advantage of the digital age. Australia’s Biosecurity Future says Australia should focus on enhanced data-sharing networks, national coordination of biosecurity activities, and investments in new technology applications. The report says that work needs to start on this now. Many of these changes will take 10 years to plan and successfully implement. National, collaborative action is required today.

How Australia navigates the changes needed over the next decade will significantly impact the health of Australians, our communities, ecosystems and agricultural systems and food security into the future. We have everything to gain by making these changes by 2030. We’ll have a much more resilient biosecurity system that’s capable of dealing with the challenges it faces. It will also ease resourcing pressures on our biosecurity system, effectively identify and manage emerging risks, reduce the risk of new incursions by pests and diseases, enhance Australia’s global reputation as a biosecure trade partner, and potentially create new export markets for Australia in rapidly growing technology fields.

What do you see as the key problems or impediments between now and 2030? Are there problems/issues over which, legitimately, we have no control?

Australia’s Biosecurity Future envisages a 2030 where the interconnectivity and interdependence between human, agricultural, environmental and marine health are reflected in better coordination of policies, regulations and information sharing between jurisdictions, biosecurity sectors and industry.

In the report we refer to this as system connectivity.

Timely automated information sharing across these groups is critical for earlier detection and response to emerging risks, avoiding duplication of efforts, more efficient use of resources, and prioritising investment in innovation projects. It will require digitised processes and greater data sharing across supply chains and the various health sectors to facilitate market access. This will also ensure the system can identify and manage emerging risks and established pests and diseases.

Surveillance and data-sharing systems that span across various stakeholder groups – including managers of Indigenous protected areas, national parks, and botanic gardens – could increase geographic coverage, public engagement and improve system coordination. It should also incorporate citizen science contributions as a frontline for surveillance and be used to provide information to the public.

Such system connectivity will require agreed digital data standards and sharing protocols that address concerns associated with privacy, commercial sensitivity and trade implications. We’ll also need to strengthen collaboration with international regional neighbours and trade partners. Such mutually beneficial global partnerships will support market access for our exports, and a rapid response to emerging risks.

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Credit: CSIRO

“Shared responsibility” – through a broad consensus of engagement at all levels of society – is a key part of the next-decade strategy. What will be the main things that most Australians can do to help?

The challenges facing Australia’s biosecurity system are too big for any organisation or sector to tackle by themselves. The solution is a united, multi-faceted approach. We need to harness the collective knowledge and eyes-on-the-ground capability of our citizens, our communities, our industries and our governments to ensure that all Australians are aware of their role in managing biosecurity risks and are working together to build the resilience of the biosecurity system.

Shared responsibility involves improved community engagement; more systemic collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations and individuals; and working with industry to develop their role in surveillance. For it to work, every stakeholder has to understand its value and feel invested in Australia’s biosecurity.

Together, system connectivity and shared responsibility will allow us to quickly share critical information, resources and expertise. We’ll be able to coordinate prevention strategies, improve our rapid response, and efficiently identify research needs across the human health, agricultural, and environmental sectors.

Underpinning all of this is a universally agreed and understood definition of shared responsibility across all levels of government, industry, researchers and the community. It will also require shared principles and practices that meet the needs of all stakeholders. A national community-based education program could support this aim, by promoting shared responsibility and getting everyone involved.

There’s a lot here to consider. Is there a particular something that’s going to get us over the line in terms of biosecurity?

Improved system connectivity and shared responsibility will only be possible with powerful new tools to quickly identify threats and efficiently coordinate a response. 

As such Australia’s Biosecurity Future recommends that Australia supports the growth of innovative, tech-enabled business opportunities for biosecurity. Areas such as machine learning, automation, real-time genetic sequencing and sensors could supercharge our biosecurity and open up new export opportunities for Australian companies.

It would also enhance our global reputation as a trusted export partner and a safe place to visit.

Andy Sheppard’s current primary role is research director in CSIRO Health & Biosecurity for the Managing Invasive Species & Diseases Program. 

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