Biosecurity from an animal health perspective

A look at risks posed by African swine fever (ASF) and efforts to strengthen Veterinary Services’ capacity to prevent and control biological threats

ASF as a biosecurity risk

Since 2018, a highly contagious deadly haemorrhagic viral disease causing nearly 100% mortality in pigs has affected more than 50 countries in Africa, Europe, and Asia. Though not a risk to human health, African swine fever (ASF) can have devasting impacts on the livestock production sector and poses risks to the livelihoods and food security of populations around the world. The disease can also affect global trade and international markets. Recently, the Dominican Republic reported an outbreak of ASF to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). This represents the first reported occurrence of the disease in the Americas region in over 40 years. Highly contagious, the introduction of the disease poses significant risks to the region.

The reports have mobilized a massive regional effort to prevent the spread of the disease to other countries. Besides direct infection between pigs on farms, ASF can also be spread through trade and transport of infected pork products, with the virus able to remain infectious in uncooked products for 3-6 months, as well as through contagion by wild boars. ASF is also notable for its potential criminal misuse for profit.

With the absence of a vaccine, having good biosecurity practices in place is the only means to prevent disease spread both in countries reporting cases and those trying to keep the disease out.

Biosecurity as seen from the animal health world

The OIE, a contributor to the Global Partnership since 2011, has long held biosecurity at the core of its work. Many are familiar with biosecurity practices in the human health domain. But what does biosecurity mean in the animal health world? The concept has a different meaning depending on the sector using it or the context in which it is being used. This may be further complicated when is the term is translated into languages other than English.

Agricultural and environmental communities were among the first to use the term, in their case in reference to preventative measures against threats from naturally occurring diseases and pests, and later against introduced species. This is how field veterinarians see biosecurity.

For the OIE, biosecurity is defined as ‘a set of management and physical measures designed to reduce the risk of introduction, establishment and spread of animal diseases, infections or infestations to, from and within an animal population’. It includes measures taken at all levels, from farm level, during animal transportation, at markets or slaughterhouses, in laboratories, as well as at national borders. The OIE recommends for its Members to apply biosecurity at national borders through a risk-based approach and through the implementation of its international standards, which may include application of sanitary measures. Among others, the OIE has developed specific standards by which implementation of appropriate biosecurity allows countries to establish sub-populations of animals free from diseases in free ‘zones’ or free ‘compartments’. These practices offer a risk management strategy for countries to protect the health status of their animals, and subsequently their livestock industries. The OIE is also sensitive to the biosecurity risks posed at the interface between domestic and wild animals, as described for example in a joint OIE-FAO publication on ASF ecology and biosecurity.

In the laboratory context, the term has a different meaning. Broadly speaking, from the laboratory perspective, biosafety is about protecting people or animals from pathogens being handled or stored in the laboratory, whilst biosecurity is about protecting the pathogens from people or organisations who would misuse them for harm e.g., bioterrorists or criminals.

In the context of biological terrorism, biosecurity refers to the preventative measures, systems and practices put into place against dangerous pathogens and toxins for malicious use. By and large most disease outbreaks and food contaminations occur naturally. However, there is also a real risk that disease may be introduced into susceptible human or animal populations following a deliberate or accidental release of an infectious agent or toxin.[1] These ‘unnatural’ biological threats carry special risks because pathogens may be engineered or released in such a way as to make them more harmful. Although the probability of a deliberate or accidental release may be relatively low, the impact could be catastrophic from a national to a global level. The OIE also addresses biosecurity from the context of biological terrorism and lays out its approach in the OIE Biological Threat Reduction Strategy.[2]

OIE support to Members and contributions to the Global Partnership

To support countries in their efforts to strengthen their biosecurity in its various forms, the OIE offers several different resources and programmes. Some of these are described below:

Emergency management and disaster preparedness

The OIE, under its mandate to improve animal health and welfare around the world, works to build the capacity of its 182 Members so they can prevent and reduce biological threats. Under its emergency preparedness portfolio, and with support from Global Affairs Canada, the OIE and its partners FAO and Interpol are implementing the ‘Building Resilience Against Agro-terrorism and Agro-crime’ project. The project aims to strengthen coordination and collaboration between Veterinary Services and Law Enforcement around the world. Although there is no evidence that the ASF outbreak in the Americas is linked to criminal activity, such events have occurred in other world regions. The OIE has introduced a program of emergency management exchanges, pairing two countries and supporting the exchange of Veterinary and Law Enforcement experts to conduct trainings and learning.

The OIE also supports countries in disaster management. In the case of the Dominican Republic, which shares a border with Haiti, operations have been challenged by the recent earthquake and flooding. Natural disasters have the potential to cause animal health emergencies of their own, but when combined with a natural or even intentional outbreak, the situation becomes even more complex. The OIE takes an all-hazards approach and advocates for the inclusion of Veterinary Services in disaster management response for the critical role they can play in national response efforts.

Laboratory sustainability and capacity building

From the laboratory angle, the OIE, with dedicated support from Global Affairs Canada, is also invested in supporting sustainable laboratories. Laboratories play a critical role in health infrastructure. Often high-tech and resource-intensive, the management and operation of laboratories in many countries around the world is jeopardized by lack of resources and access to sustained funding. To address this, the OIE is leading the implementation of the Sustainable Laboratories initiative to better understand the challenges to laboratory sustainability, especially in low resource settings, and to propose fit-for-purpose and adapted solutions for sustainable laboratory biosafety and biosecurity.  Through the development of data analysis and insight into these challenges, enhancement of decision-making tools, open innovation approaches and grand challenges, definition of a biosafety research road map, and laboratory twinning projects, and in collaboration with key partners, the OIE is actively seeking targeted solutions to these persistent challenges.

The Laboratory Twinning Programme is a way for the OIE to offer targeted support to its Members, aiming to build sustainable capacity and fostering their expertise  to create a more balanced geographical distribution of scientific proficiency, increased resilience against animal disease, and improved compliance with OIE Standards worldwide. The OIE Laboratory Twinning Programme has led to numerous partnerships, with more than 65 projects implemented to date, 30 projects underway, and 14 new OIE Reference Centres created as a direct result. Starting this year, the OIE will support the development of a framework for the evaluation of the impact of twinning projects.

Regional activities and tailored support

The OIE also provides tailored support to countries to support better biosecurity around the world.

In the Southeast Asia region and in the case of ASF, this has taken the form of activities pertaining to regional coordination, technical capacity building, and communication and awareness-raising. Regular regional or sub-regional coordination meetings were organised in collaboration with FAO under the umbrella of the Global Framework for the Progressive Control of Transboundary Animal Disease (GF-TADs). A Standing Group of Experts for ASF in Asia and the Pacific was established and identified the main gaps and priorities in the region, biosecurity being one of them. Technical meetings or capacity building were conducted such as a series of ten webinars, several of them covering biosecurity matters. A workshop was also held to present the newly developed OIE Guidelines on ASF Compartmentalisation and to discuss the implementation of this concept in the region. Important work on cross-border risk assessment was also carried out in Southeast Asia: following a series of 15 webinars, a methodology was developed and used by countries to conduct their own entry risk-assessment for ASF. Communication and awareness have been and are still an important activity to support countries: translation of existing OIE material in local languages, as well as the development of specific videos to answer the regional context, reminding stakeholders of the absence of registered ASF vaccine and the need to rely on biosecurity. Most of the ASF-related activities are available on the OIE regional ASF-dedicated webpage.

More recently and in response to the detection of ASF in the Dominican Republic, the OIE in partnership with FAO quickly mobilised the Standing Group of Experts for ASF under the GF-TADs for the Americas to provide support to Members in the region. A field mission to the Dominican Republic and Haiti has been deployed by the FAO Emergency Management Centre for Animal Health and as of August 2021 is still on the field. This mission has allowed for a better understanding of the spread of ASF virus on the island and of the local pork value chain. The mission team has made numerous step-wise recommendations which will address aspects related to biosecurity, containment, risk communications and epidemiological investigations, among others. The OIE is actively collaborating with FAO and regional partners (OIRSA, IICA, Carivet, etc.) to improve readiness, risk communication and capacity for early detection and containment of ASF in countries in the Americas region.

The global community has a responsibility to implement good biosecurity practices and the OIE is proud to play a role in fulfilling this need around the world. Investing in appropriate capacity building and awareness raising of all stakeholders involved is a key responsibility of countries to prevent and reduce biological threats and their impacts.

[1] For information on other sources of outbreaks, see Guidelines for Investigation of Suspicious Biological Events and Guidelines for the Responsible Conduct in Veterinary Research.

[2] For more information on the OIE’s Biological Threat Reduction Strategy, see the OIE website.