Distinguished Professor Philip Hulme highlights how our current COVID-19 response points the way forward to improving biosecurity in New Zealand.
This article, by Distinguished Professor of Plant Biosecurity Phil Hulme, originally appeared on Stuff.co.nz.
New Zealand’s actions to halt Covid-19 represent the most dramatic biosecurity response ever undertaken in this country.
So why are we making remarkable progress towards eliminating a pandemic disease, when attempts to prevent epidemics in our livestock, crops, and native species have failed? The obvious answer is that human lives are more important than plant and animal health.
But this is not the whole story. Our Covid-19 response highlights fundamental limitations in our biosecurity system that we must address.
In responding to Covid-19 we have benefited from considerable international data to estimate the likely impacts of the epidemic and the costs of doing nothing. Unfortunately, there is seldom such shared and extensive international knowledge in biosecurity incursions, so our responses rely heavily on the domestic workforce.
One barrier to rapid action is that the scientific expertise is fragmented across various Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) and universities. Moreover, the mandate that drives CRIs limits cross-systems thinking and targets short-sighted stakeholder-driven priorities.
Consequently, the research required to underpin a major biosecurity response is unavailable for all but a handful of well-established industries and legacy threats such as fruit flies or foot-and-mouth disease.
Even where incursions appear likely, we often fall short. Examples include Psa almost destroying the kiwifruit industry, and myrtle rust now threatening many taonga trees. In both cases, research to support an adequate response ramped up only after the diseases arrived.
Too often, the lack of funding coordination, partisan politics of research providers, and convoluted contracting processes cause delays, meaning we miss the opportunity to eradicate. We must address the inertia of a research funding system that isn’t fit to tackle emergencies.
Contact tracing has been pivotal to the Covid-19 response, and has been far superior to the way we track the movement of livestock or horticultural produce.
Failures in the National Animal Identification and Tracing system severely limited the current response to Mycoplasma bovis in cattle, and poor record keeping by horticultural nurseries stymied the tracing of stock infected with myrtle rust.
These industries are improving their record keeping, but other sectors still have a long way to go. Establishing a national tracing standard for all primary industries should be a national priority.
The success of New Zealand’s science-led Covid-19 response reflects the quality of the science and data that have supported decision-making, as well as the rapid allocation of government funds to accelerate research and information gathering.
This shows we can overcome the stumbling blocks that have limited biosecurity responses in the past.
One important lesson is that biosecurity requires all parties to “go hard and go early”, but this is best achieved when government, industry, and the research community recognise and address their own impediments to swift action before any emergency.
We need a unified, non-partisan approach to biosecurity research that is fit-for-purpose, to ensure New Zealand is better prepared for potential incursions. We need the same sort of unified focus as we have brought to Covid-19.
We have had a wake-up call. Let’s act on it.