Simply defined, biosecurity encompasses procedures intended to protect humans and animals from disease or harmful biological agents. Animal biosecurity is a general description for measures designed to protect Canada’s animal resources from foreign and endemic infectious and parasitic disease agents at national, regional and farm levels. Many of the concepts related to biosecurity formally started because of the worldwide threat of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). They then expanded to include other highly infectious diseases in animals including emerging diseases.
Incorporating disease control and mitigation principles carried biosecurity planning beyond the status of simple prevention strategies to full-on disease control and elimination, which includes socio-economic factors, animal welfare considerations and recovery options.
The definition of biosecurity shifted again with the inclusion of zoonotic disease and food safety. As it stands now, biosecurity includes the prevention of disease-causing agents entering or leaving any place where they can pose a risk to farm animals, other animals, humans, or the safety and quality of food products.
Wrinkles in the biosecurity blanket changed again when COVID-19 became a worldwide pandemic. Suddenly, those involved in production agriculture — such as veterinarians — were summoned to coach clients through steps to keep people safe from COVID-19 within the tightly controlled environments of sophisticated livestock operations.
Core biosecurity principles and accompanying practices linked to livestock production now enveloped all aspects of food production, preparation, manufacturing and human health. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, humans had to reconnect with the basic principles of biosecurity that marshalled our species through cataclysmic events such as plague (Black Death), cholera, small pox, polio and influenza. Recovery in earlier times seemed by accident when science straddled the unknown. Then recovery happened by design when the marvels of vaccines and knowledge of viruses emerged. The concept of One Health enlightened us even further while we attempted to muster pools of expertise in human medicine, veterinary medicine, public health and associated disciplines in animal and social sciences.
Dr. Deborah Birx, former U.S. coronavirus response co-ordinator, stated at the March 31, 2020 White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing that there are “no magic bullets, no magic vaccine or therapy. It’s just behaviours.”
Birx’s assessment about fighting COVID-19, in the absence of effective vaccines at the time, simplified important biosecurity practices that would substantially reduce the risk of introducing and transmitting COVID-19, the most devastating infectious disease in a century. But continued travel of asymptomatic carriers fueled the rapid transmission of the virus across North America. Community spread through large gatherings, introductions into high-risk workplaces and densely populated areas and limited diagnostic testing hindered containment. Despite attempts to implement mitigation policy, spread accelerated during March 2020, highlighting deficiencies and limitations of North American public health infrastructure and preparedness. It became clear that the best way to prevent this potential tsunami of chronic complications and the associated increased health care costs was by halting COVID-19 transmission.
A U.K. paper, “Missed Opportunities? COVID-19, Biosecurity and One Health in the United Kingdom,” appeared in Frontiers in Veterinary Science. The paper questioned why science overlooked what we have learned controlling animal disease. The paper’s authors: Gareth Enticott, a senior faculty member in human geography, Cardiff University, and Damian Maye, with the Countryside and Community Research Institute, University of Gloucestershire.
Enticott and Maye’s view reflects one I have often questioned. Their abstract begs the question: Why do we not apply what has been learned in animal epidemics in cases of serious disease outbreaks in humans?
“Whatever we read about COVID-19, the word unprecedented is not far away: whether in describing policy choices, the daily death tolls, the scale of upheaval, or the challenges that await a readjusting world.”
Unprecedented did not describe the crisis unfolding in the U.K. Rather, events were foretold in accounts of successive animal health crises. Social studies of biosecurity and animal disease management are a mirror to the unfolding human catastrophe of COVID-19, furnishing few surprises. And yet, these accounts appear to be routinely ignored in the COVID-19 narrative.
In bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), for reasons not yet understood, the normal prion protein changes into a pathogenic (harmful) form that then damages the central nervous system of cattle. Research indicates that the first probable infections of BSE in cattle occurred during the 1970s with two cases of BSE being identified in 1986. Twenty years later, scientists definitively associated BSE with human disease and the panic started. COVID-19, the third coronavirus causing respiratory disease in humans, transmitted through animals, emerged as highly transmissible and caught the world flatfooted — public health systems unprepared for another pandemic, no vaccine and leadership in disorder. Bovine TB in the U.K. should clearly remind the scientific community that we should never disregard the importance of animal reservoirs in dealing with zoonotic disease. The tragedy of FMD in the U.K. points to what needs to be done in controlling highly infectious diseases in a modern world. All these stories that could have guided the world’s response to COVID-19 were left untold. Failure to learn signals a failure of the One Health agenda.
In Enticott’s view, evasion was based on the government’s understanding of individual rather than collective behaviour during emergencies. Behavioural fatigue caused the public to reject widescale lockdown. The government’s chief scientist’s suggestion that herd immunity would broaden and flatten the epidemic peak should have been flagged as unacceptable, especially when paired with the belief that some people would have to take coronavirus on the chin. Rather than government-imposed containment measures, such as banning mass gatherings and closing schools, government assumed the public would do the right thing. It turned out to be too little, too late, too flawed.