The last time there was a pandemic of COVID-19 proportions was in 1918, which was an influenza outbreak that killed an estimated 50 million people world-wide, including 9,000 in New Zealand.84 This so-called ‘great influenza’ had zoonotic origins, though there remains uncertainty about the nature and number of animal hosts responsible for the 1918 outbreak.85 Other zoonotic diseases of note in the last twenty years include avian flu, the H1N1 virus (swine flu), SARS, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD).86 Each of these communicable diseases emerged from human-animal contact, whether it be in the food processing or animal husbandry context.87
The ever-present possibility of emerging diseases in farmed as well as wild animals, and the consequential movement of diseases between animals of the same species, across different species and between animals and humans, already directly affects the ways in which animal flows and connections are managed.88 Some examples of diseases in these categories that are actively excluded or managed with biosecurity practices include M. bovis, mycobacterium bovis (bovine TB), foot-and-mouth disease and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease). Yet, New Zealand’s economic and social reliance on the health security of a hybrid ecological environment of farmed animals and indigenous species sets a rather unorthodox scene for the incorporation of a new and emerging biosecurity threat: transmissible diseases among humans capable of reaching pandemic proportions and originating in animals. COVID-19 has highlighted an ‘absent/presence’89 in our national biosecurity conversation of interspecies health risks and the implications of these for all other areas of biosecurity.
Reframing New Zealand’s biosecurity conversation
In the New Zealand context, unwanted biological manifestations pose a continual challenge to the health and wellbeing of communities, the security of the environment and the country’s economy.90 Our biosecurity practices already negotiate the tension inherent in the co-existence of agriculture and conservation, both in terms of the biological vulnerabilities of large-scale animal and plant operations and the precariousness of biodiversity in our indigenous landscape.91 However, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for New Zealand’s biosecurity practices, such as the ability to extensively and quickly contact-trace in any type of biosecurity response, to continually demonstrate flexibility and responsiveness in the face of biological indeterminacy.92 Flexible and responsive biosecurity practices are essential if we are to pre-empt or even just keep up with life’s mobility and mutability.93 The first step in learning COVID-19’s valuable lessons is to change society’s biosecurity lens to include an ever present threat of zoonotic diseases, and New Zealand is in a good position to be a global leader in having these discussions.