Politics and Biosecurity

This is an article that I always intended to write on my site. I just never imagined that it would be this poignant, no, critical for Australians…

It is January 2001 and I am sitting in the office of my then boss, Dr Bernie Robinson, in the Edmund Barton Building in Canberra along with his boss, Dr David Banks, Head of Animal Biosecurity Policy. On speaker phone is Malcolm Roberts, Chief Ministerial advisor to the Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, Warren Truss.

As the Senior Policy Officer in charge of the Prawn Import Risk Analysis (IRA), I had been under sustained pressure since we released the draft report which recommended a strong increase in biosecurity measures aimed primarily at white spot virus.

I was under pressure because the prawn farmers were putting pressure on Minister Truss. They wanted uncooked prawns banned from entering Australia. In the years preceding this the Asian aquaculture industry had swung to producing a more productive species and our farmers were finding it difficult to compete.

Mr Roberts was speaking to David Banks on speaker phone and I was present for technical input. The real purpose of my atypical presence at such a high level discussion was to intimidate me to change my scientific opinion to suit what the minister wanted, to appease the prawn farmers and ban the importation of uncooked prawns, leaving the lucrative fresh prawn market to Australian producers.

During that conversation a ministerial staff member interjected to inform Mr Roberts that a prawn farmer was on the phone wishing to speak with him, at which point the Advisor said bluntly into the phone, “That’s the seventh prawn farmer who has called me today! Why can we not ban uncooked prawns!”

The Risk Analysis panel met later that week, and I intentionally walked with the two external scientists from their hotel accomodation to the Edmund Barton Building. I explained that we in Animal Biosecurity were coming under a great deal of pressure, but they should feel free to express their opinion. I informed them that I intended to do likewise irrespective of the pressure being placed on me.

During that meeting the Minister’s office faxed a paper that had been faxed to them by the Prawn Farmers’ Association.

The meeting finished with the panel agreeing to stand firmly behind the draft recommendations as there was no new substantive evidence which changed our views on risk.

I finished up at Biosecurity Australia within a fortnight of that meeting as I left to take up a fellowship from the CNRS in France to work with JR Bonami, incidentally in the laboratory where Dr Shi Zhengli did her PhD, the Wuhan virologist who identified the coronavirus cause of COVID-19. Zhengli and I are friends and we have been in email contact during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Within a month of my departure the department announced a significant strengthening of biosecurity measures on prawn imports which went well beyond the recommendations of the draft IRA. The prawn farmers were rewarded for their persistence.

In 2018 an outbreak of white spot virus occurred in prawn farms in southeast Queensland. The outbreak led to a costly program which aimed to “erradicate” white spot virus.

How was it that Australia suffered an outbreak of white spot disease in prawn farms after 17 years of very strict biosecurity protocols on prawn imports?

Remember that we know very little about the baseline health status of our wild crustaceans. In the 90s I worked on the first-described virus of freshwater crayfish, which are keystone species in Australian fresh waters, and I found half of the next 10 viruses found in this group of animals. My final proposals to Government funding sources were aimed at better describing the health status of our crustacean stocks, including screening widely for white spot virus. My failure to obtain funding was the primary reason for me retiring from scientific research at 34 when I was considered one of the global experts in the field.

The truth is that state and federal fisheries bureaucrats do not appreciate researchers finding new pathogens in livestock and native animals because they fear the consequences to trade in animal and plant commodities. They are concerned with politics not science.

My view is that white spot virus may have long been present in wild crustaceans in Australian waters, and there is little way of being confident that it does not occur here. You can be certain that there is no interest in finding the virus in wild crustaceans if it was present.

Now with COVID-19 we have similar political considerations that health officials are weighing up even though the consequences are far greater. There are  some similarities and some disparities with my own experiences.

On one hand the inclination to play down the risk of COVID-19, to minimise concerns within the public thereby having an effect on economic activity, is palpable. This is the opposite to the situation with IRAs where politics usually favours an exaggeration of the risks and consequences of disease introductions.

I was particularly interested by recent developments in the US. What was stated with the passing of the first American due to COVID-19 was that the CDC criteria for testing of people for the presence of the causative virus had to be extended to people who show symptoms of COVID-19 such as respiratory complications. Before this the criteria for testing was that the person had to have returned recently from China or had been in contact with such a person.

In other words the criteria for testing precluded the detection of community transmission cases. Sound familiar? I do not consider this to be an oversight.

The pointing at others by Western nations suggesting political interference is hypocritical to say the least. I certainly assume that Australian health bureaucrats will be under significant pressure from their political masters, especially given the nightmare summer the federal Government has stumbled through.

My major concern is that conflicted academic institutions, concerned with revenue falls from travel restrictions on full fee-paying foreign students, have joined with other interests to weaken arguments for our typically very high biosecurity standards during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One has to wonder just how many daily phone calls the respective Ministers are receiving from the education and the tourism industry representatives agitating for travel restrictions to be lifted. 

Given our advantageous geography as an island continent, the Government should in fact be considering strengthening the travel conditions. We certainly make full use of this virtue when marketing our animal and plant products as being clean and green.

The disparity is stark, and as we are talking about human lives instead of the health of prawns and bananas, for example, it is all the more concerning.

As WHO is strongly asserting, the window of opportunity to prepare for the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in thus far lesser impacted countries is rapidly closing.  

Other countries are talking about the issues I raise.

Jeremy Hunt, the chairman of the Commons health committee and former Tory health secretary, succinctly explained on national radio the “social and economic trade-offs” Britons needed to decide on to contain Covid-19.

“In Wuhan, it appears that it has peaked at less than 5% of the population getting it. And we are having to make contingency plans for 70% of the population getting it, and in terms of the number of lives lost, there is a massive difference, hundreds of thousands of lives difference, if you can contain it to less than 5%.”

“And, so, the question we have to ask ourselves, and I think the government is right to start to spell this out – but I think they need to go further – is what are the social and economic trade-offs that we are prepared to make to keep the spread of the virus at that low level.”

It almost beggars belief that our political, bureaucratic, academic and business elites believe that they can make decisions of such import to all Australians without even discussing the matter openly.

We are, afterall, talking about the lives our children, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunties, grandparents and friends!

It really is becoming increasingly apparent that our elites are morally bankrupt.

One has to wonder whether they have really thought through what will be the political implications when thousands of Australians suffer serious illness and death due to COVID-19 when so much more could have been done to minimise the societal impacts, i.e. to minimise the number of deaths of people who had so much more to contribute to Australian society.

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2020

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