GREAT BEND, Kansas — Emerging infectious diseases like the coronavirus don’t just threaten humans. They’re also a major concern for the livestock industry and the U.S. food supply, with billions, if not trillions, of dollars at stake.
“We have a lot of movement of animals,” said Jack Shere, associate administrator for emergency program planning, response and security at the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “And disease could spread very easily.”
Considering three out of four new diseases in humans come from animals, including the coronavirus, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and livestock producers are seeing what they can learn from the world’s response to COVID-19 — so they can be prepared for the equally serious threat of a devastating animal disease.
The last big outbreak
The coronavirus isn’t the first wakeup call for the federal government.
In 2015, a highly infectious strain of avian influenza (aka bird flu) led to the outright death or euthanization of more than 50 million chickens and turkeys in the upper Midwest. It also resulted in trade restrictions that caused more than $1 billion in lost export revenue.
“No one likes to pay for all of the response capabilities when nothing happens, but then when it happens people look at each other and say why weren’t we better prepared,” Shere said.
A big part of the federal strategy to keep diseases at bay involves the Department of Homeland Security, which is not only responsible for Customs and Border Patrol but also supports several important research laboratories, such as Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York state.
“The potential for emerging threats, emerging diseases, future diseases is real,” said Bob Burns, executive director office of innovation and collaboration at the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate. “And we need to pay attention to that.”
He said people should be surprised more foreign animal diseases haven’t shown up already. For years, the agriculture industry has dodged a breakout of foot-and-mouth disease, and so far, a massive outbreak of African Swine Fever has been confined to China, Mongolia, Vietnam and parts of Europe.
Like with the coronavirus outbreak, Burns said a key to stopping a foreign animal disease will be quickly identifying what it is and where it’s been. But you can’t have a diagnostic test ready if you’re not already studying or aware of the disease.
For that, you need laboratories like the one under construction in Manhattan, Kansas. The $1.2 billion National Bio and Agro-Defense facility is expected to begin operation in 2022. It will be one of only four labs in the world that can work with large live animals and highly infectious, deadly diseases for which there aren’t vaccines.
First to show, first to know
But, really, the first people to recognize an actual outbreak will likely be farmers, ranchers and feedlot operators who are in constant contact with thousands of animals every day.
Innovative Livestock Services operates eight feedlots in Kansas and Nebraska, where caregivers perform a health check on every pen at least once a day. They make sure every animal is visually inspected for signs and symptoms of disease.
“They look for the same thing we look for in our kids — runny nose, a depressed look, that type of stuff,” said Brandon Depenbusch, vice president of cattle operations for Innovative Livestock Services.
Depenbusch said he thinks about the consequences of a foreign animal disease outbreak almost every day. It’s why he’s participating in the Secure Beef Supply program, a coordinated effort between the USDA and a few states (including Colorado and Kansas) that trains and prepares cattle, pork and poultry operations on disease response plans.
“Yes, it’s a plan sitting on a shelf,” Kansas Animal Health Commissioner Justin Smith said. “We want to make sure it stays on the shelf, but at the same time when it’s time to do, they can open the book and say, ‘Yeah, I know what I’m going to do.’”
In the case of an outbreak, he said his department would act aggressively: immediately stopping all movement of animals, tracing where infected animals have been and setting up barriers between operations to prevent disease from spreading.
That last one is a real challenge. Depenbusch said as many as 75 delivery trucks enter the feedlots every day, each one potentially carrying a disease from another lot.
During an outbreak, there’d only be one main entrance and exit, he said, and each truck would be washed and disinfected before entering. That’ll slow down the feedlots and require a lot more workers, which isn’t sustainable long-term, but cheaper than the alternative — getting a call from the state Department of Agriculture telling you to euthanize 30,000 head of cattle.
“That might be one of the things that’s come out of COVID-19 is maybe now producers are saying, ‘Hmm, you know what, maybe I ought to give that a little more thought on our operation on what would happen if we had (an infectious disease),’” he said.
Depenbusch is also involved in an effort to create an automated cattle tracking system, known as U.S. CattleTrace, which Kansas piloted. It’s in its infancy, and isn’t always a very popular idea with producers who worry about government intrusion into their data.
But CattleTrace is producer-run, and any of the data would only be shared during an emergency.
“You cannot talk about enhanced biosecurity plans without at least mentioning animal identification,” he said. “Because one without the other is not good.”
In Kansas, the Department of Agriculture also runs large-scale foreign animal disease disaster drills, which last for days and involve producers and several state agencies. The drills started in 2008.
Scarlett Hagins, the vice president of communications for the Kansas Livestock Association, said the drills have been a huge success, especially because they strengthen relationships between producers and the state. Those are necessary should serious measures need to be taken to stop a disease.
If you’re looking for a parallel, think about the debate over Kansas’ mask mandate.
“I think the trust is there and that if something came up and this is what would need to be done,” Hagins said, “I think that our producers would do the best they could to accommodate that.”
Kansas is unique: It’s the only state currently doing drills on this scale and frequency. Smith said it’s not that ag departments in other states aren’t aware or concerned, but their lawmakers and governors haven’t made it a priority yet.
And that worries him.
“There’s really not a whole lot sovereign about those state lines, they’re pretty porous,” Smith said. “And we have a lot of movement that happens across state lines.”
Ultimately, any plan to respond to the next foreign animal disease outbreak will have a lot in common with the recommended response to COVID-19. To stop either, you have to have systems in place to test and trace. You have to isolate the infected from the healthy. And in the end, the heaviest burden falls to state and local agencies, most of which aren’t nearly as prepared as they should be.
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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