Animal health emergencies: Building preparedness through simulation exercises

Building preparedness through simulation exercises

How tabletop simulation exercises can build multi-sectoral collaboration and contribute to enhancing resilience against animal health threats. 

When it comes to the intentional release of biological agents, informed decisions and prompt action are key to saving animal and human lives. Simulating such events, when the animal health and security sectors come into play, is an effective way to prepare for the future. Exercise Phoenix grew out of this very need. Conducted in February 2023, the simulation exercise provided a platform to build bridges between two seemingly unrelated fields in the face of agro-crime and agro-terrorism. 

What happens when these events occur, and what can be done to improve coordination between the actors involved in the response? Delivered by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH), Exercise Phoenix attempted to answer this question.

The simulation was built around a terrorism scenario targeting animal health and food security in which cooperation between Law Enforcement and Veterinary Services was essential for effective response. Participants from twelve countries were brought together almost simultaneously across three regional hubs located in Amman (Jordan), Bangkok (Thailand) and Hammamet (Tunisia). Players were from the Veterinary Services and Law Enforcement of countries in North Africa (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania), Middle East (Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon) and Southeast Asia (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines). A follow-up table-top exercise was held at FAO headquarters on 28 February 2023 to address outputs from the regional exercises and explore the roles of WOAH, FAO and INTERPOL, in response to an agro-terrorism incident.   

“Exercise Phoenix was an opportunity for Law Enforcement and Veterinary Services to work together on a realistic agro-terrorism scenario and to consider what actions need to be taken jointly to respond to it,” explained Adrien Sivignon, Coordinator of the Bioterrorism Prevention Unit at INTERPOL. “This activity will undoubtedly enhance the preparedness of the 12 participating countries for these threats, which requires an inter-service approach”, he highlighted.   

Making sense of complex situations through simulation exercises 

Exercise Phoenix sought to strengthen multisectoral cooperation in response to potential agro-terrorism and agro-crime by exploring coordination and communication between Veterinary Services and Law Enforcement at national and regional levels. From intelligence and counterterrorism to animal health, players represented a wide range of backgrounds and engaged in meaningful discussions, each bringing a wealth of expertise in their own domain. They were confronted with a fictitious yet realistic scenario that involved the intentional release of a biological agent with potential devastating effects on animal health, food security, and national security. 

Such complex threats require multi-agency contingency planning and joint response efforts. This includes coordinated information exchange and effective sharing of expertise and knowledge during the investigation and response phases. The simulated emergency therefore offered a unique opportunity to explore agency roles and responsibilities during a joint investigation and response while also identifying gaps and collective response capabilities.

A multi-agency project to foster multi-sectoral collaboration

Exercise Phoenix was the culmination of the project ‘Building resilience against agro-crime and agro-terrorism‘, launched in October 2018 with the goal of enhancing preparedness among Members of FAO, INTERPOL and WOAH. Supported by the Weapons Threat Reduction Program of Global Affairs Canada, the project aimed to enhance cooperation between Law Enforcement and Veterinary Services in order to reduce and mitigate risks at the animal health and security interface. This was done through assessment of the current threat landscape, preparation and delivery of training workshops and communication of the Project’s outputs. The initiative focused on regions where previous work of the three organisations has identified gaps and needs in various aspects of emergency management however, the project’s outputs are relevant to countries worldwide.

“The One Health approach should incorporate preparedness for deliberate biological threats including agro-crime and agro-terrorism”, explained Montserrat Arroyo, Deputy Director General International Standards and Science at WOAH. “The risks are too high if we don’t take these threats seriously and Veterinary Services must jointly work with Law Enforcement to better be prepared for such events. WOAH and INTERPOL signed a cooperation agreement in 2022 and are actively looking for practical opportunities to work together to foster cooperation and bring mutual benefits for our respective Memberships to prepare to prevent and tackle deliberate biological threats.”   

Special thanks

Exercise Phoenix was a collaborative effort between WOAH, INTERPOL and FAO. It was planned by a multi-disciplinary team of exercise planners led by the European Commission for the Control of Foot-and-Mouth Disease (EuFMD) supported by the WOAH Collaborating Centre on Biological Threat Reduction (Institute for Infectious Animal Diseases at Texas A&M). The scenario was written by a multidisciplinary team including law enforcement and veterinary experts from across the Planning Team and networks of the partner organisations, who then contributed to the exercise teams delivering the exercise.