Biosecurity threats like pandemics will continue to rise if Australia doesn’t act, CSIRO finds

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday November 4, 2020

Adobe

Australia must transform its biosecurity system in order to protect public health, the environment and the competitiveness of key industries from the rising threat of severe biosecurity events like pandemics, according to new research by the CSIRO.

The report, launched on Wednesday and co-developed with Animal Health Australia, Plant Health Australia and the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions, found Australia is at risk of increased disease outbreaks and pest incursions, weakened exports, and damage to its global trading reputation.

The paper presents the “alarming” finding that, despite efforts by governments and other sectors, annual interceptions of materials that present a biosecurity risk to Australia have increased by almost 50% in the five years to 2017.

It notes that while Australia has one of the strongest biosecurity systems in the world, outbreaks across human, agriculture, environment and marine health are rising in “volume and complexity” — with the risk of threats like pandemics also on the rise — due to factors like increased trade and travel, urbanisation, climate change, biodiversity loss, and antimicrobial resistance.

Human, animal and environmental health are all connected, and “a weakness in one is a vulnerability for all”, the report warns.

Echoing this, CSIRO’s director of health and biosecurity Dr Rob Grenfell says COVID-19 has increased community and public awareness of the importance of biosecurity. He argues that Australia must take this opportunity to transform its biosecurity system so it can cope with the growing threats.

“How Australia navigates the changes needed over the next decade will significantly impact the health of Australians, our communities, ecosystems and agricultural systems and food security into the future,” he says.


Read more: Defence-commissioned report warned of Australia’s weaknesses in crises year before COVID-19 hit


The Australian Bureau of Statistics has found Australia’s natural assets are worth more than $6.5 trillion alone.

Australia must address the growing biosecurity threats to avoid significant social, environmental and financial consequences, the report says, as continuing along the ‘business as usual’ trajectory could “expose Australia to significant triple bottom line risks over the next 10 years”.

The paper makes 20 recommendations that aim to highlight priority areas for system improvement. They are presented across three themes, including:

  • System connectivity — digitisation and enhancing data sharing across supply chains and the human, agricultural, environmental and marine health sectors to ensure emerging risks are identified and managed,
  • Shared responsibility — enabling the role of industry and community in biosecurity responsibility through improved community engagement; more systemic collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations and individuals; and working with industry to develop their role in surveillance,
  • Science and technology — supporting the growth of novel tech-enabled start-ups that create business opportunities for biosecurity, as well as developing international biosecurity innovation priorities for the sector to focus and collaborate on.

Recommendations range from increasing Indigenous representation at senior decision-making levels, bolstering Australia’s vaccine development capability, and modernising export compliance processes, to strengthening relationships with international counterparts and developing biosecurity education and communication programs.

Animal Health Australia CEO Kathleen Plowman says the 2019-20 bushfires and COVID-19 highlight how interdependent Australia’s biosecurity system is, noting that “what happens in human health can greatly impact what happens in other sectors”.

She says all Australians have a role to play in tackling the threats.

“Shared responsibility is all about harnessing the collective knowledge and capability of our citizens, our communities, our industries and our governments to ensure that all Australians are aware of their role in managing biosecurity risks and are working together to build the resilience of the biosecurity system,” she says.

The launch of the report comes several years after the CSIRO released another paper, in which the agency identified 12 potential biosecurity “megashocks” that could impact Australia. One of the megashocks was the outbreak of a zoonotic (animal to human) disease such as COVID-19, with the report warning that “greater global travel increases the risk of any future disease outbreak quickly becoming a global pandemic”.


Read more: CSIRO launches co-developed missions program to overcome Australia’s biggest challenges


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