Friday, July 1, 2022

FMD nightmare modelling becomes clearer

Monitoring the unthinkable occurrence of a foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak has become more effective, thanks to work by Massey University researchers.

Massey University’s EpiCentre director Professor Tim Carpenter and Associate Professor Mark Stevenson are responsible for modelling work on FMD outbreaks.

They have the tools from modelling results to assess the best means to direct resources to control an outbreak.

A recent consensus from global FMD experts visiting New Zealand was that Massey held two of the best systems in the world, one from the United States and one developed in NZ.

Predicting the spread of a disease with multiple and insidious transmission routes has come a long way from the panic that gripped scientists when FMD struck the United Kingdom in 2001.

“At that time the modellers were by and large human health experts, forced to try to deal with an animal disease. There were a lot of potential transmission routes and no preparation time,” Carpenter said.

Asked about the two biggest improvements NZ has made in its ability to predict and control an FMD outbreak, Carpenter unhesitatingly put the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) scheme as number one.

“The information NAIT supplies on animals and location is invaluable data to disease modelling,” he said.

He appreciated the controversy over the electronic identification system’s introduction, but said it would be the envy of many producers in his US homeland.

“A number of powerful producers do not want the private information it carries to be made public. A lot of producers do want it, but it will not happen in the US.”

The second area of progress lies in greater collaboration between countries on understanding FMD spread and epidemiology.

This includes regular “quad” modelling group meetings between NZ, the US, Canada and Australia.

Both men were bemused by recent announcements from the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) on closer collaboration between NZ and Australia on FMD management and monitoring.

“Really, that collaboration has been going on for five to seven years now,” Stevenson said.

A recent Auditor-General’s report on NZ’s disease readiness cited a poor long-term track record by authorities in being prepared for a disease like FMD. It pointed to big challenges ahead for MPI and its weak plan for dealing with an FMD outbreak.

Given their regular contact and need to work closely with MPI, both men shy from knocking the progress made since the report.

Stevenson did note contact between him and MPI staff had increased to four to five times a week. He lamented the loss of good, skilled staff in departmental re-jigs, likening it to doing away with an insurance policy that might be called on in a time of need.

One key weakness in MPI readiness was the lack of planning to deal with more than two million carcases resulting from an FMD outbreak. The report noted an empty space in the ministry’s carcase disposal guidelines section and a lack of work on dealing with the major environmental issue that presented.

However, Stevenson said vaccination after an FMD outbreak was becoming an increasingly appealing and palatable option.

Carpenter knows of no countries where vaccination is administered as a precautionary protection, and believes it could raise trade issues if used in such a manner. Its production can also be made more complicated by the 70 strains of FMD that exist.

The Auditor-General’s report also highlighted MPI’s expenditure of $8.5 million on vaccine, but an absence of a concise plan to distribute and administer it. Stevenson said this stage was being worked on.

Modelling was proving valuable in gauging the spread of the disease and where vaccination should be delivered, he said.

It was also helping to determine where human resources needed to be dispatched, how many and where to try to head off the disease’s advance.

“But a critical area we have seen highlighted by modelling is the need for early detection and confirmation.”

Carpenter likened an FMD outbreak to having another Canterbury earthquake, with the effects spread wider, geographically and economically throughout NZ.

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