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Bringing the animal health and security sectors closer together

With borderless dangers such as disease outbreaks threatening all parts of our society, global health security has never been more important than today.  

There is much that the animal health and security sectors can do to enhance preparedness in a changing global landscape.  

Pathogens that spark deadly disease outbreaks have been around since old times. Yet, because of the increased movement of people and goods, they can now spread around the world with greater speed and frequency than ever before. This increases the chance for health systems to be caught off guard, which poses a significant challenge to maintaining global health security.  

Innovations in science have allowed public health and animal health services to fight against infectious diseases. However, modern technology has also increased the capability for a broader range of malicious actors to synthesize, engineer and disseminate pathogens. The handling of dangerous pathogens for research or diagnostics also poses a risk if appropriate laboratory biological management measures are not in place.

 

The weaponization of animal pathogens

More than 60% of existing human diseases and about 75% of emerging human infectious diseases are of animal origin. Many of the pathogens that are suspected to be used or were used in biological weapons development have an animal origin.  In addition to the direct impact that pathogens can have on animal and human health, they may also tremendously affect trade, economies, food security and political stability. A century-old international organisation, the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH) recognises that animal health impacts everyone’s health and security. WOAH’s Biological Threat Reduction Strategy aims to strengthen animal health services’ ability to prevent, prepare for and respond to laboratory accidents, bioterrorism and agro-crime. WOAH believes that the deliberate and accidental release of animal pathogens can be tackled by strengthening existing systems for laboratory biological risk management, surveillance, early detection and rapid response. This approach has multiple benefits for animal health, agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, food security, animal welfare, and economies. For over a decade, WOAH has been working with the Global Partnership against Weapons of Mass Destruction and other actors to implement its global strategy on Biological Threat Reduction.

Infectious disease laboratories play a central role in supporting animal health and public health services. However, complex and persistent barriers, both technical and systemic, hinder the sustainable operation of diagnostic laboratories in low and middle-income countries.  

Physical laboratory infrastructures need to be reimagined to reduce operational costs while ensuring a safe and secure handling of high-consequence pathogenic materials. Supported by Global Affairs Canada, WOAH has been working with partners to seek solutions to the laboratory sustainability problem. This includes assessing and strengthening the evidence base to inform sustainable biological risk management, exploring innovative solutions to tackle laboratory sustainability and supporting Members in identifying gaps in their current laboratory systems.  

To take this forward, WOAH, with funding from Global Affairs Canada’s Weapons Threat Reduction Program and technical support from The Pirbright Institute, are collaborating with Grand Challenges Canada and their implementation partners at Science for Africa Foundation to explore the application of a Grand Challenge. The project would aim to identify innovation that seeks to reinvent the laboratory, making it fit-for-purpose in resource limited contexts globally. Using a phased approach, the initiative kicked off with a feasibility study, whose outcomes will be key to identifying top innovators for future funding.

 

A paradigm-shifting collaboration

Awareness raising plays a key role when it comes to tackling animal health emergencies. To date, the main outcomes of WOAH’s work include a greater awareness amongst its stakeholders about the threats posed by laboratory accidents, bioterrorism, and agro-crime; strengthened operational partnerships between health and security sectors at national, regional and international level; significant progress in destroying remaining stocks of Rinderpest virus (a devastating animal disease which was declared eradicated in 2011); targeted capacity building activities (including guidance to WOAH Members) to mitigate threats from laboratory accidents and intentional releases of animal pathogens and zoonoses.  

A recent joint WOAH-FAO-INTERPOL international exercise (Exercise Phoenix), held in February 2023, has highlighted shortcomings in cooperative mechanisms and management systems which significantly challenge the capability to response to bioterrorism or agro-crime. To address gaps, WOAH has embarked on a mission with support from Global Affairs Canada to build and operationalise an institutional incident management system (IMS) and to help its Members strengthen their capacity to manage emergencies. The project ‘Fortifying Institutional Resilience Against Biological Threats’ grows out of the idea that global health security is a shared responsibility across stakeholders and therefore calls for inter-sectoral approaches. With this goal in mind, the project will advance efforts to strengthen shared values of cooperation and functional links with law enforcement authorities at national and international level.

Thanks to a decade of support to WOAH and investment from the Global Partnership there is little doubt that the risk from laboratory accidents and intentional releases has been reduced. However, there is still much work to be done.

In various countries, national veterinary services struggle to gain political recognition and secure sufficient budgets to carry out their core tasks. As global public goods, a weak national veterinary service in one country may represent a risk to others. On the contrary, a well-governed veterinary service in one country may protect others. The longstanding synergies between WOAH and the Global Partnership continues to raise the profile of veterinary services at national and international level by highlighting their role in safeguarding national and global security. The investments made in strengthening the capability to manage risks from intentional release of pathogens and laboratory accidents have the potential to reduce the burden from naturally occurring disease outbreaks, while also contributing to livelihoods, prosperity and societal stability.

To pave the way for global health security, we need strong and resilient public health systems that can prevent, detect and respond to any health threat, wherever in the world they occur. WOAH believes that a paradigm of global health security which brings together the animal health and security sectors will favourably shape the response to the emergencies to come.