Biosecurity has become a much more popular term in recent years, especially since the post-September 11 anthrax scares in the United States. However, there is nothing new about it; arguably, biosecurity as a serious pol- icy issue dates back to at least 430BC, when the great plague of Athens killed one-third of the population and ended the Golden Age of Greece. What is new, however, is the global- ized context in which biosecurity concerns are now located, as well as the severity of the threat they pose to previously isolated regions such as the Canadian landscape. Indeed, a resource-draining ”œwar on terror” is misdirected policy in light of the contemporary international biosecurity threats to Canadian environmental and human security.
There are a surprising number of biosecurity threats, and we have lived in various states of collective denial about all of them. I will focus explicitly on those threats posed by invasive life-forms, threats to animal and human health from microbial invasions, and ”” affecting both biodiversity and human health ”” the biosecurity implications of envi- ronmental change. All of the threats to biosecurity described here have domestic, as well as extra-territorial, causes and manifestations; and Canadian efforts abroad are essential if we wish to deter further incursion. It is vital that the biosecurity discussion does not labour in the obscurity of scientific journals and alarmist Web sites, but is made central to national and international public policy debates.
In an age of superpower military assertion, nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, mass state murder, and terrorism, it may seem trite to worry about invasive frogs. Yet there are at present serious concerns over the ability of delicate ecosystems in British Columbia to withstand the onslaught of bullfrogs ”œthe size of dinner plates” as they continue their rapacious spread across that province. Apparently, the frogs were introduced by an enterpris- ing restaurateur in the 1930s, who released them after realizing they would not become a fashionable menu item, and the population has exploded in recent years throughout large por- tions of Vancouver Island and the south-western part of the mainland. They have a wide-ranging appetite for other amphibians, ducklings, garter snakes, songbirds, and even mice. Similar fears surround the potential introduction of the Asian carp, which escaped from Arkansas catfish farms in the early 1990s and eats almost half of its weight in plankton and vegetation every day; and the hydrilla weed, orig- inally from Asia and but a more recent escapee from Floridian aquariums, which is apparently on its way north- ward, wiping out local plants and choking lakes and rivers.
Of course, the ultimate invasive species, and the one with the uncontested title for most ecological damage done in the process, is humankind. Indeed, for several cen- turies, bioinvasion has been a global affair based on human-mediated global dispersal. Reasons for deliberate intro- ductions include bio-pest control and the introduction of game species for hunting and fishing purposes. This lat- ter is common in North America, where the Great Lakes (after being rav- aged by the invasive sea lamprey) have been populated largely by introduced species, and where species such as the ring-necked pheasant and sika deer have been introduced for hunting pur- poses.
But most major bioinvasions are accidental. Perhaps the most infamous example of transoceanic bioinvasion in Canadian history is the inedible dreissena polymorpha, or zebra mussel. Zebra mussels are, indeed, the most opportunistic of tourists.
Ships have long been conduits for species distribution. The use of water as ballast in large cargo ships and oil tankers would increase the possibil- ity of transoceanic marine biological invasions. It is believed that in this manner the zebra mussel made its maiden voyage from a European port to the Saint Lawrence Seaway and up to Lake St. Claire, between Lakes Huron and Erie, in 1988. Containing the spread seems the only option now, because eradicating the mussels would take a mammoth campaign of possibly ecocidal proportions. According to one estimate, since the completion of the seaway in 1959 at least 43 non- indigenous species have been estab- lished in the Laurentian Great Lakes, with over 65 percent of these attributed to ballast water from commercial ships. There is ample concern also that the large numbers of introduced salmonine fish stock in the Great Lakes ”” in excess of 745 million fish between 1966 and 1998 ”” have also fundamen- tally altered recipient ecosystems.
Zebra mussels are but one problem- atic invasive species that have been specifically linked by the International Maritime Organization, Global Environment Fund, and UN Development Programme to ballast water discharges. Together these organizations have instituted the international Global Ballast Water Management Programme. Others include cholera, the Cladoceran Water Flea, various sources of toxic algae, and the self- fertilizing hermaphroditic North American Comb Jelly. Many of these species have literally criss-crossed the globe as a consequence of the expansion of trade, secure in fresh-water ballast tanks, and emptied in awaiting ports. Other species, such as purple loosestrife, have spread through the fields and forests of Canada with similar speed. The time to take these unwanted guests seriously has come.
Invasive species are not always visible to the naked eye. Indeed, the most pernicious and dangerous live at the microbial level, escaping untrained detection, and threatening animal and human health as they leap from one organism to another. Again, there is nothing new about the spread of disease in agriculture and among humans. Any casual student of history is familiar with the Black Death, the impact of viral infections on native Americans during colonization, the advent of tuberculosis and other diseases during industrializa- tion, the flu pandemic of 1916-20, and other incidents that demonstrate the ability of infection to spread with alarm- ing and deadly speed. Arguably, howev- er, in an age when security concerns are heightened by the fear of bioterror, we are more conscious of the microbial threat than ever before, and the acute economic impact of disease detection in agricultural operations makes this even more evident.
One of the unavoidable risks of farming is bio-contamination, and this has been well established throughout the centuries leading to modern farm- ing and biosafety provisions. So-called mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a progressive neurological disorder found in cattle. BSE was at its most prolific on the island of Britain in the 1990s, where millions of cows were slaughtered to contain the disease. It is generally accepted that the disease was caused initially by feed containing sheep and/or cattle meat-and-bone-meal, including spinal material (brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen). This effort to apply more protein to cows’ diets may be one of the biggest mistakes ever made by the modern cattle industry (excessive use of antibiotics is another, but we will come to that later). The concern with BSE is not just that it will deleteriously affect herds of cattle; it has been transmitted to humans in the United Kingdom and else- where, causing a new variant of Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (vCJD), which results in the progressive destruction of brain cells. However, the risk of human infection is very low, because of a strong species barrier.
BSE probably entered North America during the 1980s, by way of small imports of cattle from the United Kingdom. Though contaminated cattle were identified by 1993, it is likely that remnants from unidentified infected cattle were intro- duced into the ruminant food supply around this time. By 1997, Canada and the United States finally introduced WHO-recommended pre-emptive feed bans, but it was a textbook case of too little too late. In May 2003 an infected cow was found in Alberta, beginning a stream of events that would seriously damage the beef industry in that province and elsewhere in Canada. The most dramatic impact was a virtu- al freezing of beef exports to the United States, Japan, the European Union, and elsewhere. And despite the extraordinary measures that were taken to control the disease, it will not die, at least as an issue of crossborder trade. In late December of 2003, BSE was detected in an adult Holstein cow in Washington State, and based on a historical trace of the cow’s ear-tag number it was determined that the cow originated from Canada in August 2001, touching off a renewal of bans against Canadian beef by the United States. As of September of 2005 the issue is still unresolved.
But the most spectacular event in Canadian biosafety history was certainly the rapid spread and respon- sive cull of the avian flu H7N3 in 2004 in BC’s Fraser Valley, where 84 percent of BC’s poultry industry is located. The disease, less deadly to humans than the H5N1 strain found in Asia, was first found in geese and ducks on Feb- ruary 18 near Abbotsford, and was diagnosed over a large cluster of com- mercial poultry farms by March 22. Over the next eight weeks, an aston- ishing 42 farms were infected, and approximately 19 million chickens, turkeys and ducks were slaughtered. The flu probably originated in wild- fowl populations that are resistant to the disease; once it enters an enclosed farm, it spreads with ambition, and is then spread further by the farm-to- farm movement of people, equipment, birds, and airborne transmission through dust or feathers (in Asia, open marketplaces are the primary culprits for rapid transmission). ”œDepopula- tion” procedures were stopped on June 4, 2004, but strains of bird flu contin- ue to be detected across the country.
The larger fear, however, is that such pathogens will make the species leap and begin infecting humans at uncontrollable rates. The main threat here to human health and industry stems not from deliberately released anthrax spores or smallpox, but the incidental spread of disease in a highly inter-connected global econo- my. Rodents are particularly infamous for spreading disease, but the encephalitic West Nile virus (WNV) is distributed by mosquitoes that have fed on infected birds. It was first found in 1937 in Uganda, and was located by 1999 in New York. This is a seasonal disease (contingent on mosquito sea- sons), and there are relatively low levels of infection, though related deaths were reported in Canada in 2005.
More ominously, in late 2004 influenza experts warned of a possible ”œperfect storm” of infection that could easily kill millions. Certainly the experience of the so-called Spanish flu, which killed some 40-50 million peo- ple during and following the First World War, suggests that another such catastrophe is possible. As of August 2005, the H5N1 avian influenza virus had killed over 50 people in Asia, and it has been discovered in places as dis- tant as Russia, Greece, Kuwait and Israel. Epidemiologists worry that the flu could mutate into a strain that can spread rapidly among humans, mak- ing SARS (see below) look innocuous in comparison. For some time it has been thought that pigs are excellent mixing vessels for the animal and human strains of influenza, but it is now apparent that humans themselves can serve as the mix- ing vessel.
But we need not look into the potential future for a dead- ly epidemic, since we are in the midst of one at the present. HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), a simian retrovirus that has claimed some 20 million lives in recent decades, was first detected in Canada in 1982. It was most likely transported from central Africa to North America by way of an infected man on an airplane. According to Health Canada, some 50,000 cases of HIV infection, and 20,000 cases of AIDS, have been reported in Canada. This pales in comparison to the global toll: worldwide, some 40 million people live with HIV/AIDS, more than half of them in Sub- Saharan Africa, many of whom are co-infected with tuberculosis or other pathogens.
Trends toward safe-sex behaviour have reduced the spread of HIV/AIDS in Canada, though there are fears it is again increasing among men who have sex with men, and its spread amongst heterosexually active young women and intravenous drug users continues to rise. It is important to remember that sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS are strongly stigmatized in many areas, including parts of Canada, and that this is probably one of the most under-reported pandemics as a result. Yet anyone travelling in southern Africa, where HIV seroprevalence runs as high as 35 percent, cannot help but notice the preponderance of fresh graves in local and even makeshift cemeteries; the only thing comparable are the war-time cemeteries of armed-conflict zones.
Canada has the potential to emerge as a leading state in the global fight against AIDS, passing legislation permit- ting the export of cheap generic anti-retroviral drugs in 2004, though it also limits the list of medicines available, and it remains to be seen whether Canada can live up to its com- mitment or potential in this vital human security issue. Cana- da has recently doubled its contribution (from $50 million to $100 million) to the UN-administered Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; this is still but a drop in the proverbial bucket. The Canadian Network for Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics receives a paltry $700,000 a year for research, and the Canadian AIDS Strategy has been frozen at $42 million a year for 11 years (though a promise has been made to double this by 2008-09).
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was first noted in November of 2002 in Guangdong Province, China; by July 2003, the international spread of the virus had caused over 8,000 cases and 774 reported deaths in 26 countries. The natural reservoir of the virus has been linked to the Himalayan masked palm civet, the Chinese ferret badger, and the raccoon dog, all consumed as delicacies in southern China; and domestic cats have been found to carry the virus in parts of Hong Kong. Once recognized in Canada in late March of 2003, SARS had a devastating effect on the tourism industry, particularly in the hard-hit Toronto region, as the WHO released a travel advisory on April 22 discouraging nonessential visits. The advisory pricked the national con- sciousness, and the minister of health and other officials have been blamed for a dereliction of duty for the slow federal response rate, as well as lack of effective representation at the WHO. (The WHO ban was the result of a lack of screening at Canadian airports; the agency seeks to avoid the export of diseases to countries incapable of mounting effective health system responses. Once Canada finally began effective screen- ing, the ban was lifted.)
SARS has presently entered what the WHO refers to as an inter-epidemic period, meaning that sporadic, isolated cases are still emerging, but the threat of sec- ondary transmission is relatively low. Laboratory safety is paramount here, since recent infections have been linked to exposure amongst laboratory work- ers. But SARS could certainly break out again at any given moment, especially during the colder months in China, and it remains only a flight away.
In cases such as these, response net- works are critical to short-term emer- gencies. In terms of bioterrorism, stockpiles of smallpox vaccines have still not been achieved (as of spring, 2005) despite years of post-9/11 promis- es by the federal government. But a smallpox attack is a relatively low threat compared to the incidental spread of killer influenza strains. We are, slowly, mobilizing defences: tens of millions of anti-viral drugs have been stockpiled, and the federal government has recent- ly pledged to help fund research into developing a vaccine to treat H5N1. Indeed, funding for vaccine research is part of the roughly $50 million to be used to advance Canada’s pandemic influenza preparedness effort. Humans have achieved considerable success in the past against infectious diseases such as cholera, smallpox, polio, leprosy, and others (though even here the applica- tion has been uneven). We should not forget that fighting infectious diseases is a learning process, and will be a cumu- lative and perpetual effort.
I should note, however, that it is important to avoid the tendency to equate all such pathogens with for- eign, or exotic, sources. Consider the 2004 introduction of Clostridium diffi- cile, a microbe resistant to most broad- spectrum antibiotics commonly used in hospitals; last year, some 79 patients died in Montreal-area hospitals alone because of an outbreak, almost double the number of people who died of SARS the previous year.
Again, the emphasis must be on pre- vention, early detection, the devel- opment of alternative responses in the event of emergency, and the humane treatment of those affected. Support for virology, immunology, and epidemiolo- gy is vital. International co-ordination is essential, and an enthusiastic educa- tional effort is crucial. But we must also be concerned with the biosecurity threats presented by the very lifestyle we wish to protect, and it is to that more introspective theme I turn next.
Environmental change is of course unavoidable, and it would be as futile as disingenuous to refer to this as a sudden threat to biosecurity. It is the rapid rate of anthropogenic-induced change that is at issue, and we are making unprecedented alterations at both the macro and micro levels. These present incalculable risks to human, animal and plant life.
Agricultural production encour- ages homogenous ecosystems and is reliant on unnatural inputs, especially pesticides and oil byproducts, for increased yields. Urbanization drives demand for the extraction of natural resources. Industrialization has intro- duced a wide array of carcinogens and other contaminants to the water sup- ply, the food supply, and the air we breathe. Even changes at the microbial level may be attributed to human activity. The extensive use of antibi- otics, both by people and on farms, is an example: excrement containing antibiotic residue gradually finds its way into water systems, including the Great Lakes; ironically, the dispersal of antibiotics could lead to the evolution of ”œsuperbugs,” invasive species we would be unable to resist.
Although cramped social condi- tions accelerate microbial traffic, environmental disturbances also stim- ulate microbes. Globalization and glob- al warming are increasing the likelihood of bioinvasions at both the microbial and species levels. Warming trends could induce entire species to migrate northward, raising concerns over novel disease and other threats to native species. In the case of zebra mus- sels, for example, we might see north- ward migration as the appropriate reproduction temperatures are more common. However, such ”œunassisted migration” will prove difficult for rare species of plants and trees, and adapta- tion or extinction are as likely.
When invasive species actually transform ecosystems, they can also cre- ate hybrid taxa, or ”œgenetic pollution” resulting from introgression, and this can only be studied at the level of gene analy- sis. This becomes even more important with the agricultural introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which can actually represent invasive species in their own right when they pol- linate adjoining farmland. The continu- ing debate over the safety of GMOs reflects this apprehension, thus the vig- orous call for application of the precau- tionary principle by GMO opponents.
This area of research is only begin- ning to materialize, though it should accelerate if climate change brings new and dangerous microbes to the industri- alized states (of course, many would argue this is already occurring). The ethi- cal issues presented by xenotransplanta- tion (the transfer of tissue from one animal to another of a different species) have troubled scientists and ethicists alike since the mid-1940s, when the immunologic basis of tissue rejection was discovered, eventually making transfers of organs possible by administering immunosuppressive drugs such as cyclo- porin. As such scientific adventurism proceeds, the fear of xenozoonosis (an infectious agent introduced to humans by transplanted tissue) is a real one.
Beyond this, it has been suggested that some 80 percent of all can- cers are likely due to environmental factors that could be reduced or even eradicated, including toxic industrial and agricultural chemicals, excessive sunlight, nuclear radiation from power plants and military produc- tion, and other contributors. The United Nations Environmental Programme asserts that ”œsome 25 per- cent of all preventable ill-health, with diarrhoeal diseases and acute respira- tory infections heading the list” is directly attributable to poor environ- mental quality. Of course, these link- ages are all controversial in the causal sense, but the point is that in pursu- ing economic and military security, biosecurity is often compromised.
Admittedly, we will always live (and die) with the uncertainties posed by the imperative of biosecurity. But there is no need for complacency either, and several points may be stressed at this time.
We need four levels of action to become organizing principles. Firstly, in the biosecurity realm, the ”œfront-line worker” has become an essential element in the chain of response. As we now have a small cadre of wildlife management experts moni- toring invasive species, health profes- sionals experienced in dealing with highly contagious pathogens, and many farm workers experienced with avian flu and BSE containment, we can begin to build upon this resource for future generations both within and outside of Canada. Canada can pursue a leadership role here, disseminating the knowledge we have learnt the hard way.
Secondly, governments must act pre-emptively, commit- ting resources commensurate to the magnitude of these threats. This does not entail the induce- ment of panic, but rather stead- fast dedication to developing the expert community and reaction forces necessary to stem out- breaks. This should not be an ephemeral electoral issue, but a recognized function of the state. In 2000 Parliament created the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), which has developed an Institute of Infection and Immunity. Canadian scientists were the first to recognize and DNA-sequence a new coronavirus associated with SARS (by comparison, it took almost a decade to obtain the complete sequence of HIV). We need more of the same.
Thirdly, we must entrench the recog- nition that biosecurity is both a domestic and a foreign policy issue. Canada’s multi- lateralist tradition would suggest that it will support the development of interna- tional legal mechanisms, and institutions such as UNEP and the WHO and CBD, to deal with invasive species, major micro- environmental issues such as AIDS and avian flu, and other threats to biodiversi- ty and human security. But it would be at best premature to rely on such mecha- nisms, and much more prudent to seriously question our own behaviour and explore ways we can increase our global contribution to short and long-term solu- tions. We need simultaneous and inter- mixed national and foreign policy biosecurity reviews, in order to draw more attention and resources to these issues.
Finally, civil society must be engaged, not only to educate the public, but also to increase its direct participation. There is an awkward yet inevitable tension between the science and politics of these issues, since they often evoke stark ethical and moral considerations. This cannot be over- come by reliance on technocratic means of governance. On the contrary, such debates can open the door to the broader intro- spection necessary to reassess the values and direction of our society, as well as Canada’s role in the world. Indeed, we might ask how we can utilize such security threats to broaden civic participation and reduce structural inequities, instead of low- ering and reinforcing them, respectively.
Ultimately, the management of these issues will be a function of their presentation, representation and misrepresentation by media, govern- ments, NGOs, and industry alike. Prevention and preparedness are obvi- ously necessary; with invasive species and infectious disease, we can predict patterns of prevalence, but would be foolish to believe we can do so with great accuracy, or enough to eliminate the omnipresent element of surprise. Environmental change is even less manageable.
What may be needed, now more than ever, is a healthy dose of introspec- tion. Many of the invasive species we face today are approaching Canada because of economic processes that need to be tightly regulated if we stand a chance of controlling their further spread. Similarly, the processes of mass industrialized agriculture ”” the feeding of bovine spinal matter to cattle, the close quarters in chick- en coops, and the water contami- nation as a result of excessive untreated farm excrement, are responsible for the speed with which biosafety can be compro- mised. Our eating, driving, and recreational habits, all consumer activities, have a profound effect on human health, but also on our ecosystem maintenance capacity.
The greatest threats to Canadian biosecurity come not from anthrax-wielding terror- ists, or Spanish fishermen with illegal nets. They are a function of the agricultural and industri- al processes on which the Canadian society and state, as well as the globalized economy in which it is enmeshed, have become dependent, making bioinvasion a per- manent feature of the ecological, and political, landscape.