Opinion: Lessons the livestock industry can learn from COVID-19

By examining the measures that helped control the COVID-19 outbreak in humans, we can identify similar measures to use in a serious animal disease outbreak.

As COVID-19 spreads through human populations around the world, many sectors started untangling lessons learned from one of the worst global health emergencies in our lifetime. The social and economic ripples of this virus across Canada have affected industries, businesses, communities and individuals to varying degrees and the livestock industry has not been spared.

COVID-19 highlights the Canadian livestock industry’s many vulnerabilities to a serious animal disease. Just as with COVID-19, there would be no previous exposure or immunity to a serious animal disease such as foot-and-mouth or another highly contagious disease. Such a disease may have significant impacts to industry operations, trade or even human health.

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Young woman is standing by a fence on a ranch with cattle in the distance

These vulnerabilities are perhaps most significant at the outset of an outbreak, when rapid tests, vaccines and other refined tools or strategies that take time to develop are not yet available to control the spread of the disease.

Controlling the spread of COVID-19

While more refined measures may in time be developed and contribute to the eventual eradication of COVID-19, in the early days and months of the outbreak professionals have had to rely on the basic measures at their disposal.

During the global pandemic, many communities focused on the following measures to limit introduction, slow the spread and otherwise control the outbreak:

  • International travel restrictions;
  • Domestic non-essential movement bans;
  • Masking regulations, emphasis on hand hygiene, physical distancing;
  • Emergency financial supports, applied with a “go big, go fast” strategy; and
  • Communications and championing of desired practices.

Over and over, in country after country and with compliance being voluntary or mandatory but never 100 per cent, these basic measures played a key role in slowing the outbreak’s spread; in “bending the curve” — first slowing the acceleration and later reducing the daily counts; and in reducing the overall incidence of the disease in most areas where it was detected.

Similarities between COVID-19 and a Serious Animal Disease outbreak

Just as COVID-19 was transmitted easily throughout human populations, a highly contagious animal disease could spread rapidly through the Canadian livestock industry. As with humans, the socio-economic model of the livestock industry involves:

  • Extensive comingling between high-density communities;
  • Frequent movements, spanning large distances; and
  • Relatively low biosecurity.

For COVID-19, a relatively small number of basic measures were applied at the outset, in the time between disease identification and the arrival of more refined techniques. Similar basic measures can be applied at the outset in the livestock industry to control the outbreak so it doesn’t reach epidemic proportion and to maintain an industry capable of recovery.

Leaders must identify in advance the basic measures that will likely be required and ensure that the livestock industry has the capacity to effectively deliver these on little or no notice. Quite literally, we need the ability to have these rolled out the same or next day after an outbreak is confirmed.

We simply won’t have time to await the development and implementation of more refined measures such as zoning policies, rapid tests and vaccinations to slow the spread, control the outbreak and limit the effect on our industry and livelihoods. When the disease is rapidly spreading, we’ll need to immediately and effectively roll out such measures as 72-hour standstills, elevated risk biosecurity protocols, financial support strategies and strong communications by recognized experts who are championed by our leaders. That’s what will ensure that the outbreak is controlled early and with least cost, and enable the industry to survive and recover.

So, what are the basic measures effectively used with COVID-19 that are relevant and practical to the Canadian livestock industry?

  1. Foreign travel ban

Movement controls are one of the cornerstones in halting disease introduction, managing transmission risk and reducing the load on health care systems. On March 25, 2020, strict international travel regulations were enacted by the federal government as part of an emergency order under Canada’s Quarantine Act. All but the most essential movements into and out of Canada were restricted and in time prohibited.

Export bans are the widely used comparable measure in the livestock industry. Most countries importing livestock or livestock products will ban susceptible imports from a country with confirmed or suspected cases of a serious animal disease. While recognized for its effectiveness, leaders of an industry that is experiencing an outbreak — particularly in a country such as Canada, whose livestock industry is heavily export-oriented — understand the significant financial toll of an export ban and view these with considerable fear. We must plan to ensure the livestock industry can survive an export ban.

  1. Non-essential travel ban

The ban on travel within a community — lockdown — was implemented in many countries that had extensive outbreaks and high caseloads, including Canada.

The comparable in the livestock industry is the 72-hour standstill or non-essential movement ban. A 72-hour standstill protocol, to be used collaboratively by industry and government in the days preceding legislated and more refined movement controls, has been developed as part of the Animal Health Emergency Management (AHEM) project. This protocol is in its final development stages. Next steps must focus on industry’s capacity to implement such a measure, and the key factors that would support its acceptance and use.

  1. Physical distancing, mask wearing, hand washing and in-store traffic directives

For the most part these public health measures were widely adopted and supported. Behaviours changed across most communities as a large segment of the population clearly considered the measures essential to business continuity.

These measures are comparable to enhanced, or elevated risk biosecurity protocols in the livestock industry. While national biosecurity standards for normal or steady state activity were made available to each livestock sector about 10 years ago, the elevated risk biosecurity protocols that are essential to business continuity in the event of a serious animal disease outbreak have not yet been fully developed.

The elevated risk biosecurity protocols suggested in the AHEM producer handbooks are a good place to start. These are available or under development for different commodities in most provinces. They build on the national biosecurity standard, suggesting specific protocols relative to farm access, sick animals, traffic flow, staff, deadstock and production areas.  These should be developed further and incorporated into industry programs such as Verified Beef Production Plus.

  1. Emergency financial supports applied with a ‘go big, go fast’ strategy

For COVID-19, the delivery of financial support on a massive scale right from the outset was recognized as an essential measure to enabling compliance and maintaining an economy capable of recovery at a later date.

Comparable measures must be developed and available to the livestock industry if it is facing a serious animal disease outbreak. These measures must be available in the magnitude required right from the outset if the industry is to be capable of a recovery once the outbreak is over. The suite of business risk management programs presently available through the federal and provincial governments do not provide for the magnitude or time frame that is required.

  1. Communicating and championing desired practices

Provincial governments are the primary source of public health information, business continuity processes and protocols for COVID-19. Across the country, chief medical officers of health communicate the desired practices in regular briefings that are strongly championed by political leaders.

Whether it was bending the curve, flattening the curve, social distancing or physical distancing, Canadians experienced a crash course in public health messaging and strategies to protect wellbeing. The combined use of subject matter experts to communicate required technical measures, and political leaders to champion these sources and measures has resulted in a high level of compliance.

The comparable process in the livestock industry will involve the chief provincial veterinary officers announcing technical guidelines, recommendations or protocols at the provincial level, or Canada’s chief veterinary officer conveying similar information from the federal standpoint. These announcements must then be referenced by elected officials in industry and government, including industry association leaders, premiers and the prime minister.

I hope this article initiates discussion among leaders in the livestock industry regarding the importance of basic measures — whether tools or strategies — for controlling the spread of a serious animal disease outbreak; and also for ensuring that these measures are understood, planned and practised so they can be effectively used when they are most needed, at the outset of an outbreak. Proactive consideration of these measures and planning and practising their use will improve outbreak control and enable the longer-term recovery of the Canadian livestock industry.

Matt Taylor began his career in the livestock industry in the late 1970’s as a ranch hand, prior to working as a livestock industry association executive, and presently co-managing the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada-funded Animal Health Emergency Management Project.

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