As the coronavirus crisis continues to unfold, a consortium of Australian and New Zealand veterinary scientists has been established to train a new generation of 'animal disease detectives' in 11 countries across Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
"A year after African swine fever wiped out more than a quarter of the global pig population and with more than 200,000 people dead from COVID-19, equipping veterinarians with the tools for disease outbreak investigation and surveillance has never been more important," said program leader Associate Professor Navneet Dhand from the University of Sydney School of Veterinary Science and Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity.
The scientific consortium includes more than 40 experts from veterinary schools across Australia, New Zealand and the Asia-Pacific.
"The coronavirus outbreak has underlined how urgent this work is," Associate Professor Dhand said. "The majority of emerging infectious diseases, such as coronaviruses, are zoonotic: they spread from animals to humans.
"To protect humans from these diseases we must look for pathogens and disease 'upstream' in domestic animals and wildlife before they spread to the human population."
Associate Professor Dhand said the consortium will engage with government animal health authorities and educators in the Asia-Pacific region to strengthen the capacity to detect, respond, control and prevent animal disease outbreaks that could affect human health, animal health and farmer livelihoods.
The program is funded by the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Associate Professor Dhand said: "Our program will support our neighbours' efforts to deal with these emerging threats and in doing so, strengthen Australia's biosecurity, health and economy."
Researchers emphasise that while this coronavirus has its origins in an animal transfer, there is no evidence the COVID-19 virus can be contracted from pets or other animals.
Transboundary animal diseases, which travel quickly across borders, and zoonotic diseases, which transfer from animals to humans, are increasing in frequency due to a range of factors, Associate Professor Dhand said. These include population growth, urbanisation, land-use change, encroachment into wild habitats and increasing global air travel.
"These diseases can spread rapidly across borders and have huge economic and health impacts. We are finding this out right now with coronavirus," he said.
The DFAT-funded program will develop capacity for early intervention in the investigation and management of animal disease outbreaks in the Asia-Pacific region.