This article by Michael Helmstetter, Ph.D., first appeared at Forbes, May 19, 2020.
For most of our lives, Americans have been lucky to take biosecurity for granted. We can go to the grocery store and accurately assume that food will be safe and plentiful. Farmers have modern tools available to fight invasive pests and weeds. There is enough productive farmland available to feed the entire country. Fruits, vegetables, legumes and meat grow in clean, monitored conditions, travel in temperature-controlled containers and are checked for freshness before being placed on grocery-store shelves. When pathogens do sneak all the way through to end consumers, regulators catch, list and recall affected foods or shut down source restaurants.
It's a fortunate situation to have this level of oversight and process. Citizens of other countries have to worry about food grown in polluted wastelands, bushmeat disguising as chicken, fake alcohol and numerous other biosecurity concerns. A biosecure food supply is a high honor indeed, and one we must continue to earn to assure a healthy, bountiful future in decades ahead.
What is Biosecurity?
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) defines biosecurity as "everything that’s done to keep diseases and the pathogens that carry them – viruses, bacteria, funguses, parasites and other microorganisms – away from birds, property, and people." Social isolation is a modern-day example of defending one's biosecurity, as is frequent hand-washing and wearing a face mask.
When it comes to the food supply, biosecurity could mean anything from protecting crops from invasive plants to quarantining chickens infected with the avian flu. Biosecurity is why American farmers take measures to vaccinate animals, procure fresh feed, dispose of waste properly, sanitize people and vehicles exposed to animals, and much more.
Many consumers are unaware of the efforts farmers and ranchers put in to ensure a safe food product. An infected herd not only threatens a rancher's livelihood but could cripple an entire regional economy if infection spreads. An infected product can dramatically impact a restaurant’s reputation and sales.
Municipalities, counties, states and the federal government regulate biosecurity to prevent such catastrophic outcomes. Restaurant food safety inspections, sanitation departments and produce checks at state borders are examples.
APHIS tracks zoonotics (a disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans; COVID-19 would be a very real example), pests, food recalls, interstate transport and a host of other threats. The Department of Homeland Security inspects plants and animals coming into the U.S., and runs a number of research facilities dedicated to biodefense, including the Plum Island Animal Diseases Center, soon to be replaced by the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility (NBAF), a $1.25B facility under the auspices of both DHS and the USDA.
All of these examples showcase a national biosecurity backbone that is firmly in place and being expanded. As a society, we have an obligation to keep that backbone strong, to prevent future instances like the pandemic we are experiencing today.
How to Keep the Backbone Strong
Biosecurity has been a career-long focus of mine. As former CEO of a large private, not-for-profit research institution, I have been focused on early detection, vaccinations and treatment of a myriad of disease vectors including coronaviruses, select agents and many zoonotics. Laboratories are like a second home to me, and I deeply respect the scientists working hard to keep us ahead of global threats, including in the nation's 200+ federally-approved biosecurity labs. These labs not only keep us out in front of threats but also stimulate the economies of the regions that host them.
When a new, state-of-the-art, comprehensive food animal and zoonotic disease research facility was first contemplated in 2006 – when DHS called for Expressions of Interest in providing a site for NBAF – I immediately joined the effort to bring the lab to my home state of Kansas with a proposed site location at Kansas State University. In winning the K-State location, NBAF has now become part of the regional hub of agricultural scientific leadership, bringing in world-class researchers, educational programs, vaccine manufacturers and other businesses and more.
The lab, when fully operational at the end of 2022, will strengthen the nation's biosecurity backbone by preparing for and preventing not only coronavirus-like zoonotic pandemics, but by helping secure the nation from agroterrorism. Any comprehensive national biodefense strategy must include agriculture and food.
Next Steps for a Biosecure Future
If we're learning anything from the current pandemic, it is to not take our biosecurity for granted. The 2017 Securing Our Agriculture and Food Act was a good push in the right direction, but more must be done. NBAF is an excellent start for filling the gaps around monitoring, early detection, vaccines and therapeutics. A national stockpile of such preventative and treatment measures currently doesn't exist and will be an important next step.
Even the most state-of-the-art facility is only as good as the research budget behind it. Those overseeing the development of the NBAF must ensure that it has the resources to hire and fund the best researchers in the world.
In addition to researching vaccines and treatments, there needs to be a more robust monitoring program so that problems can be identified as early as possible. Collaborating with novel technology developers (like my friends at Innovaprep, who have a series of novel biomonitoring technologies for early disease threat detection) is paramount. Coordination and mitigation should be at the forefront in case the worst should occur. Streamlined and accountable federal oversight should be strengthened, as many of labs are operated independently.
Finally, private-public partnerships must be strengthened so that the pharmaceutical companies can take pilot therapeutics into their portfolios and invest in them so that they can be brought to market in a cost-effective manner.
Innovation must also be supported. I recently contributed a piece on Forbes focused on the values of gene-edited plants and animals. I believe strongly that gene-edited food is a necessity for a comprehensive food security strategy. At my company, TechAccel, we're investing in gene-edited crops that are resistant to disease, fish vaccines, anti-virals for food animals and many other preventative therapeutics. Such innovation must be supported on a national level so that we have the best and most cutting-edge designs to facilitate strong biosecurity.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to show us, biosecurity isn't a one-and-done prospect. It is a sophisticated ongoing battle. If the nation's biosecurity backbone is to remain strong, we must prioritize investment not only in building new capabilities, but in keeping pace with an ever-evolving world of threats.