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Australia announces new program to investigate threat of animal diseases

Australia will become a “world leader” at preventing diseases that emerge through animals through a new $8.4 million program that will investigate health risks in wildlife and try to safeguard against future pandemics.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud will on Monday announce the new initiative which he said was essential to preventing another outbreak like Covid-19, which is believed to have been transmitted from bats.

“Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus the importance of recognising and managing emerging zoonotic disease risks which can originate from wildlife,” he said.

“This program positions Australia as a world leader of the global transformational change agenda aimed at preventing future disease risks emerging from the human-animal-environmental interface.”

The program will be delivered by organisation Wildlife Health Australia in partnership with the CSIRO, focusing on the interconnection between animals, humans and the environment, known as a “one health” approach.

BARNABY JOYCE PRESSER
Camera IconAgriculture Minister David Littleproud has announced $8.4m in funding. NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage Credit: News Corp Australia

“This significant new program will help us to identify the underlying causes of wildlife health events, to both improve the outcomes for our wildlife as well as providing the information we need to more thoroughly analyse the potential “one health” implications of such events,” CEO Rupert Woods said.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said Covid-19 had prompted a global focus on preventing future pandemics, which he described as an “ever-present risk”.

“Strengthening Australia’s national surveillance at the human-livestock-wildlife interface will not only provide early warning of emerging disease risks in Australia but will put us in good stead to influence global reform along these same lines,” he said.

Almost all major exotic livestock diseases of potential concern to Australia, including African swine fever and foot-and-mouth disease, will have wildlife or feral animals as part of their cause or spread.

It’s estimated there are 1.7 million undiscovered viruses in mammal and birds, with climate change also increasing risk because of its impact on wildlife and ecosystems.

Mr Littleproud will also announce almost $400,000 to help neighbouring Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea in their battle against African swine fever outbreaks.

Timor-Leste, which has received $180,000, was hit by the deadly viral disease in 2019 and has lost more than 100,000 of its 420,000 pigs after also suffering severe flooding.

PNG, which produces 27,000 tonnes of pig meat annually, first suffered an outbreak in March 2020 and will receive the remaining $205,000.

African swine fever is a viral disease with no effective vaccine which can survive for long periods of time in uncooked, frozen, or cured pig meat.

It can remain in a pig pen for at least 30 days and is widespread throughout Asia.

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