Animal Disease Agents, including those transmissible to humans, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE)—have the potential to escape by accident from laboratories or to be used as biological weapons because of their wide ranging economic, health, and social impacts and their potential availability.

By Jaime Abella Sison, DVM, FPCVFP

Countries that apply good veterinary governance are best placed to detect and rapidly respond to all animal disease outbreaks in order to prevent potential biological disasters.

Animal Pathogens Used as Bioweapons

Throughout history, the majority of pathogens that have been used as bioweapons or in bioweapons development have been animal pathogens, and especially pathogens with zoonotic potential.

Animal disease outbreaks can have considerable economic and social consequences because they impact directly on productivity, local economies and market access. The cost of controlling these diseases may also be very high. The president of the World Bank, for instance, has warned that a pandemic could kill tens of millions people and wipe out between 5 to 10% of GDP of the global economy. Dr. Jim Yong Kim declares that the world is “completely unprepared” for an outbreak on the scale of the Spanish flu outbreak witnessed in 1918, which killed between 3 to 5% of the world’s population at that time.

Disease agents such as foot and mouth disease virus, the anthrax bacillus, and African swine fever virus are readily available in endemic countries. They can easily be acquired from live or dead animals or from the environment and from laboratories (particularly those with lower levels of biosecurity). Advances in synthetic biology offer the possibility of further manipulating animal pathogens to make them more harmful than in their natural state. This situation, coupled with the fact that they can easily be smuggled across borders undetected, makes them very attractive to those wishing to cause disruption and economic losses in countries that are free from the disease.

Factors to Consider when Securing and Handling Animal Pathogens in a Laboratory Environment

Two very important factors need to be taken into account when securing and handling animal pathogens in a laboratory environment. These are:

1. Biosafety
Laboratory biosafety describes the containment principles, technologies, and practices that are implemented to prevent the unintentional exposure to biological agents and toxins, or their accidental release.

2. Biosecurity
Laboratory biosecurity describes the controls on biological materials within laboratories, in order to prevent their loss, theft, misuse, unauthorized access, or intentional unauthorized release.

Biosafety and biosecurity measures are a prerequisite for laboratories handling or storing pathogens. The OIE Manual of Diagnostic Tests and Vaccines for Terrestrial Animals Chapters 1.1.3 and 1.1.3a (2014) provide a standard for biorisk management and guidelines on biosecurity and bio-contaiment.

Early Detection and Rapid Response to Animal Disease Outbreaks

Whether animal disease outbreaks result from natural events or accidental or intentional release, the mechanisms for early disease detection, notification and control are very similar. To maintain global disease security, these mechanisms must be in place in all countries.

Effective veterinary services, complying with OIE standards on quality and capable of early detection and rapid response to any disease incursion, offer the best protection against any natural or intentional introduction of animal pathogens to animal and human populations.

When there is a suspicion that a malicious act is behind an animal disease outbreak, it is important to know about it at a very early stage so that appropriate response mechanisms can be quickly implemented to avoid the exponential spread of these pathogens.

Using modern techniques, laboratory experts in OIE Reference Laboratories will often be the first to confirm the identity and origin of a pathogen.

Animal producers and field veterinarians play a very important role in being the first to suspect a contagious disease in animals. Continuing education for producers and field veterinarians is essential to maintain their preparedness.

The Importance of Intergovermental Standards in Reducing Biological Threats

“Considering that 60% of human diseases originate in animals, collectively the two organizations – OIE and WHO – share a critical role in setting standard to protect against zoonotic disease”, stated Dr. Bernard Vallat, Director General of the OIE. These internationally adopted standards are the basis for global infectious disease prevention and control, including early detection and rapid response to biological events, and for strong animal health and human health systems.

Compliance with these international standards ensures resilience against all infectious disease threats because the tools and systems used to detect diseases early and to control them quickly are the same whether the cause is natural, accidental, or deliberate.

“Today’s challenge for many countries is to ensure that they have the political will, infrastructure, resources, and effective governance to apply OIE’s Intergovernmental Standards and WHO’s International Health Regulations. Appropriate cooperation between national animal health, public health, and security sectors is critical to ensure that intergovernmental standards are respected,” explained Dr. Vallat.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s August 2015 issue.