CANBERRA — The COVID-19 outbreak has led to increased discussion on zoonotic pathogens transmitted between animals and humans, a core focus on the study of One Health — a multisectoral approach to health recognizing the connections between people, animals, plants and shared environments.
For the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research, expanding the global knowledge on the intersection of animal and human health has been a priority in its contribution to the Australian aid program since its establishment in 1982.
“One of Australia’s greatest strengths is in agricultural research.”— John Anderson, chair, The Crawford Fund
“COVID-19 has resulted in more questions on how we can create a more joined-up approach between animal health and human health,” Andrew Campbell, CEO of ACIAR, told Devex.
“To respond, we need to be thinking about surveillance, diagnostics, prevention, and all of those things in a more joined-up way across human and animal health as well as environmental health. It is also about wildlife getting into the food system and in part that has happened because of habitat destruction and fragmentation,” he said.
Building One Health knowledge in ACIAR
International agriculture is one of many areas of development that have been impacted by COVID-19, but it is an important focus in funding response and recovery activities. Those working in the space share how they are continuing to make an impact.
Anna Okello, research program manager for livestock systems at ACIAR, and has been contributing to ACIAR research in One Health for over a decade — beginning with the study of zoonotic transboundary diseases in Indonesia and Australia.
Today, she is leading a range of One Health projects, including a $10 million Australian dollar ($6.9 million) One Health research program in collaboration with the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security, supporting the wider awareness of One Health within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Australian aid program. Through this collaboration, One Health has been identified as a priority in the new aid policy, which will focus on responding and rebuilding from COVID-19.
Getting to this point has taken decades of work. A long-maintained research focus on One Health has built a network of connections within Australian aid partner countries, as well as built organizational expertise within ACIAR.
Today, ACIAR continues to build its knowledge base and connections as part of ongoing research projects. What has become apparent, however, is the disconnect that exists between research and the establishment of systems in countries that build One Health into business as usual — on farms, in markets, and more.
“There is a business case to build around One Health. And understanding the value addition is a big question One Health researchers ask ourselves a lot,” Okello told Devex. “There are a lot of other questions we can answer from a One Health perspective around governance and policy — to get agriculture and health ministries working together to create cross-sectoral policy, and engage with financial ministries to help fund these things.
“When people look at health from a variety of perspectives rather than one side, it starts to make sense from a value perspective. And that is what we are trying to promote with One Health,” Okello said.
This part of the work has increasingly become a focus through the collaboration between ACIAR and the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security, with the aim of building animal-human health systems in the Indo-Pacific region that are sustainable long-term — that are not just established to respond to a pandemic, and which shut down when the threat is over. In the initial results, Okello said it is showing success.
“I find in low- and middle-income countries there is often demand for One Health,” she said. “That is an important start. Through this work, we are seeing — at least in our region — that there is the political will that agencies want to work together and are interested in the concept.”
Commitment and political will were important factors in building demand for One Health, Okello said. But urgency created by a disease was also a driving factor, with COVID-19 a potential catalyst to make One Health part of a business-as-usual approach in national health systems.
Interest in the approach has increased and ramped up since the beginning of COVID-19, Okello said. “It’s an opportunity we need to take. Almost every person in the world has been impacted in some way by COVID-19 and this is a chance to show how looking at the ecosystem in a more holistic way is a sound investment. We can turn this into a positive moving forward.”
Already, she said, One Health is becoming a more commonly used term among governments, showing a shift that she hopes will be permanent. But approaches implemented needed to be designed for the specific environments they will be implemented in, she warned.
“One Health works differently in different contexts,” Okello said. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach. So it has to be flexible enough that it does mean something to everyone — otherwise, it will fall away again.”
Calls for Australia to do even more
While ACIAR exists to build agricultural research partnerships and knowledge sharing between Australia and partner countries, there is a belief that DFAT can leverage this expertise further.
“In these difficult times when we are financially challenged, we should play to our strengths,” John Anderson, chair at The Crawford Fund, told Devex. “And one of Australia’s greatest strengths is in agricultural research. If you combine a proper understanding of the health of the environment, health of farming systems, and the health of human beings, Australia can really punch well above its weight — it is an area we are very strong in.”
For the Australian aid program, Anderson believes an increased focus on One Health in programming will lead to better investment outcomes for the Australian government, as well as help plug the global knowledge gaps that are emerging.
“Even though experts were working in this space, we saw agricultural research deprioritized prior to the pandemic,” he said. “Often we get caught up in a range of social issues and can ignore agricultural scientific resources. Because of this, we don’t have enough agricultural graduates globally, and we are underinvesting in this space. Too long it has been out of sight, out of mind.”
For DFAT, this is an opportunity to see this focus shift as part of its COVID-focused aid program.