While the potential impacts from human epidemics can be very different, I believe we can look to how our country has – for the most part over many years – dealt successfully with challenges posed by border biosecurity threats to our plant and animal systems – both native and productive.

We have developed a range of activities – informed by science – to manage border risks. While not perfect, we do now have a biosecurity system that is the envy of many in the world.

Our biosecurity system was not developed overnight and benefits from many years of trial and error and significant past and current investment in infrastructure, capability and science.  COVID-19 has dramatically reminded us that we need to think proactively about human biosecurity as well.

Our well-honed biosecurity system has allowed us to safeguard our economy which relies heavily on trade and tourism. The need to protect our valued plants and animals in both natural and productive landscapes underpins our economic, environmental, social and cultural well-being. Being an island nation far from anywhere else has also helped this undertaking.

I think there are many similarities between what we have faced in plant and animal biosecurity for many years and what we now face with COVID-19 as we move out of lock-down.

My thoughts on what we can we learn from plant and animal biosecurity that could be relevant for human epidemics are listed below.

1.           NZ understands that there is a range of biosecurity threats which can have significantly different impacts, fruit flies, for example, would provide huge challenges to our horticultural export industries if they established in NZ – our approach for them is ‘keep them out’ and ‘eliminate’. Other species may have less impact will get treated differently.

2.           NZ is not working in isolation.  NZ has a world leading biosecurity system, led by MPI, which reflects the biosecurity imperatives of New Zealand but is fully integrated into international biosecurity initiatives such as the International Plant Protection Convention.

3.           NZ has a system approach.  A whole of system and integrated approach has been implemented that co-ordinates activities across the biosecurity spectrum from risk assessment (what/where are the risks?), pathway management (how do they get here and how do we stop them getting here?), diagnostics (how do we identify them?), surveillance (how do we survey for them if they do get here?), eradication (how do we get rid of them?) and if all else fails, how do we mitigate their impact if they establish?  Co-ordination of this system is very important.

4.           Partnerships with industry are important.  In recent years NZ’s biosecurity system has been reinforced by formal partnerships between MPI and industry through the GIA (Government Industry Agreements for Readiness and Response) ensuring the vital input from these sources into designing and resourcing biosecurity.

5.           Biosecurity underpinned by science.  NZ’s biosecurity system is underpinned with multi-organisational, multi-disciplinary science collaborations such as Better Border Biosecurity (B3), the BioProtection Research Centre (BPRC) and the Biological Heritage Science Challenge (BHNSC), where researchers from a range of institutions can pool their expertise and resources to come up with more effective solutions at a faster rate.

6.           Trans-Tasman partnerships are very relevant.  NZ needs to work closely with Australia as their biosecurity problems become ours and our biosecurity problems become theirs very quickly. By working together we can reduce the threats to both our countries more effectively.  B3’s relationship with the Plant Biosecurity Research Initiative (PBRI) is a great example where biosecurity risks are being targeted jointly from both sides of the Tasman.

7.           Big players need to be cultivated.  The importance of staying closely connected to the big international players especially USA and China is recognised. China in particular, is the potential source of many invasive species and activities such as the International Congress on Biological Invasions (ICBI) – to be held in Christchurch in September 2021 (COVID-19 allowing) – the first time outside of China.  It is vitally important that NZ cultivates such relationships to enable it to work more closely with scientists from around the world and understand the risks from those sources.

8.           Community involvement, including participation by iwi, could be a game changer.  It is becoming more apparent that community engagement and participation with the biosecurity system is essential.  An outstanding example of this is the Tauranga Moana Biosecurity Capital initiative that brings together a “coalition of the willing,” including iwi, community groups, industry, businesses, agencies, educators, scientists, and others, all striving to achieve biosecurity excellence.  Te Tira Whakamātaki is providing a strong Māori voice in this area.

New Zealand’s world-leading plant and animal biosecurity system really has been successful in allowing the country to trade and connect with the world for a long time in the face of many biosecurity threats. Managing the risks presented by different fruit flies and Brown Marmorated Stink Bug are good examples of how we do this work by applying many of the eight points I have just laid out.

If we are to minimise the impact of human epidemics / pandemics we could well learn from the aspects that make NZ’s biosecurity system work so well.

David Teulon is the director of Better Border Biosecurity (B3), a multi-partner, science collaboration that researches ways to reduce the entry and establishment of new plant pests, pathogens and weeds in New Zealand.  B3 is aligned to New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge.