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Facing Covid -19 And Future Pandemics. What Can We Learn From New Zealand’s Biosecurity System?

By David Teulon – Director of Better Border Biosecurity (B3)

Moving forward, an important question raised by COVID-19 now facing New Zealand, is, how will the country be able to interact with the outside world without risking further infection from this or future pandemics?

While the potential impacts from human epidemics can be very different, I believe we can look to how our country has – for the most part over many years - dealt successfully with challenges posed by border biosecurity threats to our plant and animal systems – both native and productive.

We have developed a range of activities – informed by science - to manage border risks. While not perfect, we do now have a biosecurity system that is the envy of many in the world.

Our biosecurity system was not developed overnight and benefits from many years of trial and error and significant past and current investment in infrastructure, capability and science. COVID-19 has dramatically reminded us that we need to think proactively about human biosecurity as well.

Our well-honed biosecurity system has allowed us to safeguard our economy which relies heavily on trade and tourism. The need to protect our valued plants and animals in both natural and productive landscapes underpins our economic, environmental, social and cultural well-being. Being an island nation far from anywhere else has also helped this undertaking.

I think there are many similarities between what we have faced in plant and animal biosecurity for many years and what we now face with COVID-19 as we move out of lock-down.

My thoughts on what we can we learn from plant and animal biosecurity that could be relevant for human epidemics are listed below.

1. NZ understands that there is a range of biosecurity threats which can have significantly different impacts, fruit flies, for example, would provide huge challenges to our horticultural export industries if they established in NZ – our approach for them is ‘keep them out’ and ‘eliminate’.

2. NZ does not work in isolation. We have a world-leading biosecurity system, led by MPI, which reflects the biosecurity imperatives of New Zealand and is fully integrated into international biosecurity initiatives.

3. NZ has a system approach that coordinates activities across the biosecurity spectrum starting with risk assessment (what/where are the risks?) and follows through with pathway management (how do they get here and how do we stop them getting here?), diagnostics (how do we identify them?), surveillance (how do we survey for them if they do get here?), eradication (how do we get rid of them?) and if all else fails, how do we mitigate their impact if they establish?

4. Partnerships with industry are important. Our biosecurity system is reinforced by formal partnerships between MPI and industry to make sure their input goes into designing and resourcing biosecurity activities

5. Biosecurity is underpinned by science drawing from multi-organisational, multi-disciplinary science collaborations such as Better Border Biosecurity, the BioProtection Research Centre and the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge.

6. Trans-Tasman partnerships are very relevant and working together reduces threats to both our countries more effectively.

7. The connection with big players - like USA and China - needs to be cultivated to facilitate close working relationships, as well as with scientists and agencies from around the world to understand risks to NZ.

8. Community involvement has real potential to be a game changer as we have experienced through biosecurity engagement and participation initiatives for the biosecurity system.

New Zealand’s world-leading plant and animal biosecurity system really has been successful in allowing the country to trade and connect with the world for a long time in the face of many biosecurity threats. Managing the risks presented by different fruit flies and Brown Marmorated Stink Bug are good examples of how we do this work by applying many of the eight points I have just laid out.

If we are to minimise the impact of human epidemics / pandemics we could well learn from the aspects that make NZ’s biosecurity system work so well.

David Teulon is the director of Better Border Biosecurity (B3), a multi-partner, science collaboration that researches ways to reduce the entry and establishment of new plant arthropod pests and pathogens in New Zealand. B3 is aligned to New Zealand's Biological Heritage National Science Challenge.

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