Research has the power to transform Australia’s preparedness for an emergency animal disease

September 24th, 2020

With African swine fever getting closer to home, Australia’s preparedness for an emergency animal disease (EAD) incursion is under scrutiny by producers and the public. Whilst strict border controls and on-farm biosecurity measures are of crucial importance in keeping diseases out, what people may not realise is that behind the scenes, research projects also make a critical difference to Australia’s preparedness for an EAD outbreak.

One such project is the multidisciplinary Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) Ready project*. Using FMD as a model, the project brings together researchers, livestock industries and state and territory governments to explore ways Australia can prevent and manage an EAD outbreak. The logic is that if Australia can be prepared for FMD, it can be prepared for any animal disease.

The project has made significant progress since it began in 2016, building capacity for on-farm livestock surveillance, evaluating response strategies, studying vaccines and determining how disease is spread. However, it’s the research on FMD vaccines which deserves recognition for bolstering Australia’s EAD preparedness.

This research has recently influenced decisions around which vaccines Australia should keep in its FMD vaccine bank (which is a supply contract with an overseas provider, rather than a physical storage facility in Australia). The project’s research showed which FMD strains are circulating in the South East Asian region where the disease is endemic, and therefore which strains are most likely to arrive on our shores. This information means Australian decision-makers can ensure the right vaccines are in our bank, should we ever need them.

Another important aspect of being prepared for an FMD outbreak is having effective tests which would allow a diagnosis of FMD to be done quickly and accurately if it were suspected in Australia. Because Australia is free of FMD, research institutions are not allowed to work with the live FMD virus in Australia. As a result, the project has set up valuable partnerships with laboratories around the world to explore diagnostic testing and all work with live FMD virus is conducted overseas.

In particular, Australia has done significant research with partners in South East Asia. Building the capacity of our closest neighbours to diagnose and respond to FMD not only improves outcomes in those countries but also lowers the chance of disease spreading to Australia. The work of the FMD Ready project recently validated an FMD diagnostic test which reduces the cost by about a third, while another test can distinguish between the different serotypes of the virus much faster. Not only does this help South East Asian countries manage an FMD outbreak but also validates tests that can be used in Australia should an outbreak occur.

These are just some examples of how the FMD Ready project’s research has profoundly impacted Australia’s EAD preparedness. Fortunately, both industry and government have realised the importance of research like this to help prevent the entry of EADs into Australia, supporting this project and related projects over almost 10 years. However, with the FMD Ready project scheduled to finish by the end of 2020, it’s crucial that this type of research continues to be prioritised to protect Australia’s multibillion dollar agricultural industry.

*This Project is supported by Meat & Livestock Australia, through funding from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment as part of its Rural Research & Development for Profit program, and by producer levies from Australian FMD-susceptible livestock (cattle, sheep, goats and pigs) industries and Charles Sturt University, leveraging significant in-kind support from the research partners.

The research partners for this project are CSIRO, Charles Sturt University through the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation, the Bureau of Meteorology and the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, supported by Animal Health Australia.