Reframing New Zealand’s Biosecurity Conversation Post-Covid-19: An Argument for Integrating Interspecies Concerns

Author: McDonald, D. A.
Published in National Security Journal, 24 August 2020

Many of the biosecurity practices implemented in a plant or animal biosecurity re­sponse and public health practices implemented in a public health emergency are the same.94 The tools of surveillance and tracing, testing and monitoring, controlling or eradicating (in the case of animal diseases like M. bovis) and containing or eliminating (in the case of human diseases like COVID-19), can all be used to manage animal, plant and human diseases.95 There are various sociological framings that underpin and explain the different biosecurity approaches, whether they involve exclusion of disease (elimination), containment of disease (isolation) or acceptance of disease within the population (vaccination and immunity).96 We have seen countries adopting one or more of these forms of management in the face of COVID-19’s global emergence. To take a contrasting example, New Zealand has taken an extreme exclusion approach to disease management, while Sweden has taken an extreme herd immunity approach.97 New Zealand’s initial lockdown was successful in eliminating community transmis­sion of COVID-19, but being ahead of other countries means that the border must re­main the critical point of exclusion until the pandemic ends. Sweden’s decision to allow more individual freedoms and greater social mingling has resulted in a high number of deaths (more than 5,500), but if herd immunity is possible then Sweden is free to open up its borders to international workers, students and travellers more quickly than New Zealand.98 We have seen how COVID-19 requires high-stakes biosecurity deci­sion-making, and countries’ risk assessments are currently being made at the cutting edge of human disease management.

The COVID-19 and M. Bovis responses

In the world before COVID-19, New Zealand’s Biosecurity Minister described M. bovis as the biggest biosecurity event the country had ever dealt with, which is a significant claim because the country has faced many pest and disease incursions over the years.99 An eradication approach was taken with M. bovis, with approximately 157,000 cattle having been culled to date (though to put this figure in context, there are approximately 10 million cattle in New Zealand).100 Scientific experts are optimistic that eradication remains achievable two years on from the biosecurity decision being made.101 COVID-19, on the other hand, has involved human as opposed to bovine quarantine and movement restrictions, and elimination of the disease is the goal, as opposed to eradication. Below is a table broadly comparing how each site of biosecurity has been managed and some of the peculiarities of each disease. The purpose of the below comparison is to illustrate the overlap between human and animal disease biosecurity practices, and the importance of localised disease contexts for management responses.

As can be seen from Figure 1, there are key similarities and differences between the M.bovis and COVID-19 responses. The similarities include: the two metre (social)distancing rule being recommended for humans in public places and individual cattle at calf-club days (see the biosecurity posters at Figure 2); standard biosecurity/hygiene