Animal health and security: a shared history
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how infectious disease outbreaks have the potential to cause major disruptions to society, as well as highlighting vulnerabilities in preparedness for biological emergencies.
As the world battles SARS-CoV-2 and its impacts, we must also listen to the warning issued by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, that ‘the weaknesses and lack of preparedness exposed by this pandemic provide a window onto how a bioterrorist attack might unfold – and may increase its risks’.
Beyond animal health, animal pathogens can impact human health, agriculture, food security, livelihoods, and even national security. Because of their potential impacts, ubiquitous nature, low cost and the ease with which they can be smuggled and propagated, animal pathogens have been used in bioweapons development throughout history. Motives have included personal or financial gain and even creating civil unrest and pushing political or social agendas.
History offers a stark reminder of this threat. According to folklore, Genghis Khan sent rinderpest infected cattle to his enemies to decimate their food supply and make them easier to conquer. In reality, the Mongol invaders are more likely to have unwittingly spread the disease across Asia and into highly susceptible European livestock with their own livestock which accompanied them and were more resistant to disease. The 20th century saw the development of large scale bioweapons development programmes, the 2001 anthrax attacks in the USA and more recently, there have been malicious threats of foot-and-mouth disease virus release in the UK, USA and New Zealand.
Events from the past continue to raise fears that animal pathogens, which are easy to acquire, smuggle through borders, and disseminate, could be used as bioterror agents. Rinderpest, a cattle plague that wreaked havoc across Africa, Asia and Europe for centuries and was feared as much as the Black Death, clearly illustrates this risk. Natural occurrences of the disease are now part of a collective memory after its eradication, which was declared in 2011. However, the virus remains stored in some facilities around the world leaving the risk of a re-occurrence whether through an accident or an act of crime or terrorism.
Animal pathogens which can cause devastation – such as those responsible for anthrax, foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever – do not just exist in laboratories; they are also freely available in nature.
Whilst the deliberate release of animal pathogens may pose significant threats to global security, enhanced preparedness and response can provide communities with a successful recipe for resilience, which, together with the availability of countermeasures, can also serve as a deterrent to their malicious use.
What are agro-crime and agro-terrorism?
The intentional release of animal pathogens is part of a wider threat to animal health and welfare: agro-crime. Animal agro-crime can be broadly defined as any unlawful act or negligence concerning animals or animal products that violates legislation and has a detrimental effect on animal health, animal welfare, public health, food safety and security, food authenticity or national security. Agro-crime is typically committed/perpetrated for personal or financial gain.
Some examples of agro-crime include:
Non-compliance with disease control measures
Animal cruelty and abuse
Smuggling of animals and animal products
Exploitation of wildlife
Deliberate release of biological agents
A subset of agro-crime, agro-terrorism is defined as the deliberate release of viruses, bacteria, toxins or other harmful agents to cause illness or death in animals with the intent to intimidate or coerce governments or civilian populations to further political or social objectives.
How multi-sectoral preparedness can help avoid worst-case scenarios
Lack of awareness and information regarding agro-crime and agro-terrorism as well as existing gaps in strategies to prevent and mitigate these potential threats leaves the international community dangerously unprepared to respond to deliberate biological events affecting animals and potentially humans, either directly or indirectly.
The World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH, founded as OIE) believes that the most effective way to prevent and tackle criminal and terrorism events is to integrate preparedness for these threats into existing animal health emergency management planning and to raise awareness amongst stakeholders.
The cost of investing in multisectoral preparedness against these threats can be outweighed by its socio-economic, health and political potential. Since most pathogens that have been used or considered for use as bioweapons are of animal origin (this includes zoonotic pathogens), the animal health and security community have an important role to play in the reduction of these threats. Together, Veterinary Services and Law Enforcement agencies can plan, prepare, and effectively prevent and respond to impactful animal disease outbreaks at national, regional, and international levels.
This is why it is essential to strengthen emergency preparedness and response capacities by implementing good practices and enhanced cooperation between the two sectors such as joint threat assessments, contingency planning and a multi-sectoral surveillance system.
The WOAH-FAO-INTERPOL joint project: a global initiative seeking to improve global security
Each bringing decades of experience in their own field, the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) are partnering in an international project called ‘Building resilience against agro-crime and agro-terrorism’.
Established in October 2018 with the support of the Weapons Threat Reduction Programme of Global Affairs Canada, under the Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, the project aims to build global resilience against animal health emergencies caused by agro-terrorism and agro-crime. It does so by creating pathways for greater collaboration and mutual understanding between the animal health and the security sectors through a dynamic, multisectoral and interdisciplinary approach.
This initiative is assessing the status of the global emergency management landscape for agro-crime and agro-terrorism and developing multi-sectoral capacity building based on these findings.
To raise awareness on the importance of multi-sectoral collaboration, a large international simulation exercise re-creating an agro-terrorism scenario in which Law Enforcement and Veterinary Services must cooperate will take place at the end of 2022. The project will culminate in a Global Conference on Emergency Management that will offer the opportunity to showcase its outcomes to a large audience.
Seeing safeguarding animal health and welfare as a shared responsibility, the project partners hope to empower the international community to adopt an all-hazards approach to animal health emergencies including for agro-crime and agro-terrorism, promote the representation of Veterinary Services in high level forums including cross-government frameworks and facilitate a stronger international emergency management network capable of responding to all emergencies.
The project works in synergy with another corporate WOAH initiative on sustainable laboratories which aims to support Members in improving biosafety and biosecurity in all laboratory settings.