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

Even in New Zealand, a country that is credited with having the most comprehensive biosecurity system in the world,4 our biosecurity messaging tends to treat public health and biosecurity as separate concerns. Yet, we know that for biosecurity to succeed in securing human, animal and plant health, community engagement and awareness are required from all sectors of society.5 A biosecurity narrative that links food handling and animal processing practices with animal biosecurity management and risks to human health is essential for preparedness for future epidemics and pandemics.

Up until the 11 August announcement of renewed Alert Level 3 restrictions in Auck­land, New Zealand’s pandemic response had been successful in eliminating2 COVID-19, and the public health messaging was clear and strong,6 but it still conceptualised human health practices in ways that invisibilise the relationship between human and animal health; certainly, there were no express links made between pandemic management practices and (the more commonly understood) food safety and animal biosecurity practices.7 COVID-19 has highlighted the direct connection between human and ani­mal health, and this is an opportunity for New Zealand to re-examine its national bios­ecurity conversation and to rebuild an integrated narrative for the future.

New Zealand has not had an influenza outbreak of COVID-19 proportions in over 100 years,8 which could explain why contagious human diseases are the least well traversed of our biosecurity objectives. Nonetheless, human health has remained largely absent from our society’s biosecurity consciousness, even though biosecurity is concerned with human health as well as economic, environmental and social security.9 Human health in the biosecurity context is usually discussed with reference to food-borne ill­nesses such as campylobacter, or high-profile food safety issues such as the whey-pro­tein concentrate incident of 2013 (WPC80 Incident).10 The WPC80 Incident involved the suspected contamination of thirty-eight tonnes of whey-protein concentrate, which is an ingredient in some infant formulas, with clostridium botulinum – the bacteria causing botulism.11

Even New Zealand’s National Security System Handbook (2016) (Security System Handbook) expressly lists “biosecurity events and pandemics”12 as separate entries, though perhaps the distinction in this document simply reflects that the Ministry of Health (MoH) takes the lead on pandemic management, as opposed to the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).13 Despite this, the New Zealand Influenza Pandemic Plan: A Framework for Action (New Zealand Pandemic Plan) does state that where humans

2 The goal of elimination is to break community transmission of COVID-19 and limit any new cases to either zero (best case) or a very low target number (next best case) in a defined geographical location. Elimination contemplates some new cases of the disease, whereas eradication means that there are no existing or new cases of the disease in the country. Eradication is not a viable option for COVID-19 while the virus remains in global circulation without any vaccination options. See Aotearoa/New Zealand’s COVID-19 Elimination Strategy: An Overview (Wellington: Ministry of Health, 2020).