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Mycoplasma bovis – Déjà vu? Lessons learned?

An informative article on Stuff by Gerard Hutching titled ‘Untangling truth from fiction of cattle disease’ inspired me to do some research of my own.

According to the article, Mycoplasma bovis (M. bovis) is the worst economic pest or disease to land in New Zealand. The cost of eradication has been estimated at $886 million over 10 years. It goes on to list several other programs carried out by government departments (MPI and their predecessor, MAF) and their costs. The naming of the Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae (Psa) bacteria which hit the kiwifruit industry in 2010 as the next most serious incursion was what really flicked the light switch and sent me off to “ask Uncle Google”.

What I sought and discovered was ‘official’ information on an incursion that I remember all too clearly! It was one that I thought would have ranked as the next most serious or close to it, that did not even rate a mention. It’s a ‘dirty word’ to many, especially beekeepers – Varroa. It is a mighty mite, the worst strain of which, Varroa destructor (Varroa), was found in New Zealand in April 2000. In May 2000 the Minister for Biosecurity described the breach as probably the most serious breach of our biosecurity in recent times.

As the then wife of a beekeeper I remember the incursion well, and all the sentiments involved. I was therefore curious to examine any parallels between these two episodes, such as surveillance/identification processes, response planning, approach to eradication/management, and what lessons were learned.
The first, most obvious difference is the physical size of the primary victim of the incursion - tiny bee versus cattle. This did not require any research! The bovines win easily on that score.

Their respective monetary contribution to the economy of New Zealand? This is not so clear cut, nor necessarily easy to calculate. There is an eighteen-year span between the two events. The unprecedented increase in honey prices (23% per annum between 2005 and 2015) plus the time value of money complicates this comparison to the point where it is not directly relevant.

The beekeeping industry in 2000 was economically in its infancy. The price of honey had remained quite static for many years. In the late 1990’s we were extracting thick oily looking Manuka honey from hives in the Taranaki Okoki Road area. It was put into drums and sold to a local bakery for around $2.00/kg. A 1996 document from the American Foulbrood Organisation estimated the cost of that disease (another story) at ‘NZ$2.9 million, or roughly 6% of the annual gross returns of the New Zealand beekeeping industry’ at the time, making the industry worth approximately 60 million dollars gross 1996.

It might be more significant to look at the potential environmental repercussions of a devastating pest or bacteria etc. destroying either industry.
In the case of the cattle industry, MB is fortunately not that calibre of threat, although Foot and Mouth Disease could potentially be! This scenario would be economically and emotionally devastating for farmers, and to a lesser extent to the whole country. Of course, a few might claim that even the total loss of bovines from New Zealand would be a positive thing – no effluent polluting our rivers, less greenhouse gas emissions to fuel global warming, most babies through necessity being breast fed - Eutopia!

The loss of the bee population would not destroy the beekeeping industry, but also impact crop pollination and pollination of pasture legumes. Even bee-hating radicals would probably concede that the results of this would be devastating – potential Armageddon!

The information that I sought on the varroa mite incursion came in the form of a performance audit report by the Controller and Auditor-General on the Management of Biosecurity Risks in November 2002. The questions to which I sought answers were set out clearly in the contents, making the answers very easy to find. This also confirmed that I am not the only person who has sought clarification on these points.

Surveillance and Identification processes

How Did the Varroa Bee Mite and Mycoplasma bovis Enter New Zealand?
The AOG Report states: ‘Although it is not possible to determine exactly how the mite entered the country, the Minister for Biosecurity has said the most likely route was through the illegal importation of queen bees by a New Zealand beekeeper, either by post or as personal luggage. However, it has also been suggested that it might have arrived by the sea container pathway.’

In the current M. bovis outbreak, the Stuff article referred to above indicates that it entered by one of seven possible channels. The disease has now been traced to a Southland farm at least back to December 2015, although MPI (Ministry of Primary Industries) says it could have arrived elsewhere even earlier.

How Were they Detected?

The incursion of the Varroa bee mite was detected on 11 April 2000 in two different ways. The original detection was made after a hobbyist beekeeper in South Auckland had a collapsed hive investigated by a bee disease expert and notified MAF of the event. MAF also detected Varroa on the same day as part of its ongoing random testing of samples of bees from export consignments. In 2002 the mite was still not believed to have spread to the South Island.

According to an account from the Radio NZ website, Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) responded to the detection of M. bovis on a dairy farm near Oamaru in July 2017. Another report indicates the disease may have been there for some time before it was reported.

On 1 September 2017, MPI said it should know in six weeks what country the outbreak came from. On 28 March 2018, MPI were still unable to trace the source of the disease. Last month (May 2018) MPI backtracked and said the Tainui Dairy farm was not the original source of the outbreak, but rather a Southland farm owned by a Dutch gentleman. It seems we are unlikely to ever know the actual source of either incursion.

Response Planning

The OAG Report into the Varroa mite makes it very clear that MAF acted quickly to apply its standard procedures to set up a pest response.
Contingency plans for dealing with an incursion were specified in MAF’s series of standards. The standards set out MAF’s policy and procedures relating to the period of notification of a suspected exotic disease through to the response phase (if required). They set out the procedures as well as roles and responsibilities for each organisation involved in a response.

The Varroa bee mite was discovered in four small South Auckland apiaries on Tuesday, 11 April 2000. The laboratory identification of the mite was reported at 4.15pm on that day. An emergency pest response was initiated, and a Field Operations Response Team was established in Auckland on 11 April. A “controlled area” was defined and declared by public notification in newspapers on Friday, 14 April.

In early May 2000 MAF contracted AgriQuality New Zealand Limited (AgriQuality) to develop a draft operational plan, so that issues of technical feasibility could then be fully considered. The plan envisaged depopulating managed hives immediately after a decision had been taken to pursue eradication.

An independent Technical Advisory Group (TAG) was established by MAF to provide advice on technical aspects relating to eradication. This TAG included scientific expertise across a range of disciplines and from a variety of science institutions, as well as representatives from the beekeeping and horticultural industries. It operated to agreed terms of reference. It was independently chaired by the Chief Executive of Institute of Environmental Science and Research Limited. Officials from interested Government agencies were invited to observe the deliberations and provide input where appropriate.

It was convened on 31 May 2000 to evaluate and make recommendations on the technical feasibility of the eradication plan, the probability of success, and to prepare a report on a preferred response strategy. The TAG’s final report (recommending against eradication) was dated 30 June 2000.

By that time the delimiting survey was largely complete, with the spread of varroa known. From that time, MAF and the Government were able to consider possible longer-term responses.

The MB saga is somewhat different. Following the first report of MB in July 2017, a number of new cases came to light, with six farms known to have been infected by August of that year. There is no readily available information on the standard followed, policies and procedures etc. However, the number of infected farms reached 25 by the end of February 2018. By 10 May, the number of had reached the mid-30s. Another 40 were considered highly likely to be infected.

On 14 May, M. bovis was discovered on a Waikato farm for the first time, and it was revealed two more were being monitored. Almost 300 farms were under regulatory control, and 1700 were regarded as being "of interest". (Radio NZ articles.)

Approach to Eradication/ Management

An economic impact assessment of Varroa on agriculture suggested that, with no direct Government involvement, Varroa was likely to cost the country at best around $400 million and at worst around $900 million (in present value terms) over the next 35 years.

MAF estimated that the costs of an attempted eradication would have been $55-70 million. Given the assessed economic impact, eradication would therefore have been worthwhile from an economic perspective if it were technically feasible.
On 12 July 2000, the Government announced that no attempt would be made to eradicate the Varroa bee mite on the basis that the chances of achieving eradication were minimal. It was a controversial decision that was criticised by both industry and non-industry groups.

However, according to the comprehensive performance audit report by the Auditor-General on the Management of Biosecurity Risks in November 2002, this criticism was unfounded.

The decision not to eradicate was a critical decision. In reaching that decision, the Government considered the views of the beekeeping and other primary sector industries, and the independent Technical Advisory Group (TAG) established by MAF to provide advice on technical aspects relating to eradication. In the end, the Government accepted that the probability of fully eradicating the varroa bee mite was minimal. They instead adopted a three-tier strategy involving an immediate, interim, and long-term management plan.

The Varroa decision was clearly made in keeping with well documented standards and procedures, and in a short three-month timeframe – from discovery on 11 April to a decision concerning eradication on 12 July 2000.

The approach to the current MB incursion and decision on eradication has been more drawn out and the management less structured.

In an April report from MPI's technical advisory group, it was revealed the government's scientists had become far more pessimistic about the chances of eradicating the disease. They said there was uncertainty about the cost and effectiveness of efforts to control the disease, and they believed success was unlikely. The group queried whether attempts to eradicate would be worth it.
In early May it was revealed the government and Federated Farmers had been arguing for weeks over how who should pay for the outbreak. Minister of Agriculture, Biosecurity, Food Safety, and Rural Communities Hon Damien O'Connor said the total bill could come to $1 billion and farmers would be asked to pay $400 million. He argued the industry's exports were at $20bn every year, and it should contribute.

He said the government had a tough choice to make between full or phased eradication of the disease, or containment. Mr O'Connor said eradication was very difficult, and maybe impossible. Up to 60,000 cows could be infected. He criticised NAIT (National Animal Identification and Tracing) for the spread of the disease, and was joined by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who said her government had inherited a "shamefully underfunded" system that was an "abysmal failure". The government said farmers who did not abide by the system could face penalties. While some failures of that system do appear to have impacted heavily on the response, they do not appear to be the whole problem, and fixing them would not provide a complete solution.

On 1 September 2017, MPI had said it would decide by the end of 2017 whether it would try to eradicate the disease. Jacinda Ardern confirmed on 28 May 2018 that the government would over the next 10 years fight to eradicate M. bovis from New Zealand.

No country has ever managed to do this!

The fact that a decision has been made is seen as positive by most, and it will now be important that agricultural bodies, farmers and all concerned support the planned efforts to achieve this lofty goal.

What Lessons Were Learned

Looking back eighteen years to the Varroa mite incursion and reading the Audit office findings on the management of the response has certainly been enlightening. It appears that an effective standard was in place, and set plans and procedures were followed. Expert advice from within and outside the industry was sought, and the response was prompt. Economic and technical factors were considered and evaluated, leading to a decision not to attempt eradication. A long-term management plan was devised and followed quite successfully.

The AOG Report did make a few recommendations. One of the most significant to the present situation is the warning concerning the risk of a second incursion occurring while resources are stretched fighting a primary one. Increased vigilance is mandatory to prevent this!

Leading up to the Varroa incursion, changes had been made to MAF’s surveillance programmes. The report indicated this needed improvement. The Varroa surveillance programme did not identify the presence of Varroa until it was too late to eradicate it. That showed how crucial surveillance is to effective biosecurity risk management. It advised that detail the aims of each surveillance programme should be detailed and performance standards specifying the expectations and coverage of each programme produced.

The other area that received negative assessment was the IT Systems at the time. The AOG report stated that information technology (IT) was not well suited to the response against Varroa and made co-ordination difficult.

MAF’s IT system was not capable of enabling both the response headquarters and the field operations to share a common set of data. Telephone, fax, e-mail, and post are relied upon for communication between headquarters and the field. The system did not allow data collected in the field to be entered directly into the response software. An IT project team was convened to resolve the problem.
From my perspective the IT system will be crucial to meeting the objective in the current attempt at eradication! In 2000 Geographic Information System (GIS) technology was still in its infancy in New Zealand. Today the country has matured to the stage that it is the technology of choice in most government departments and local authorities for a huge variety of land-based applications.

Spatial land information and GIS technology are now used extensively in New Zealand. They are essential for understanding and modelling movement, specifically the spread of infectious diseases in humans and other species. I certainly hope that a GIS system is in place to store, link, and analyse cattle consignment/movement information, the NAIT system data, animal health related information, and property/location data. Even without the existence of a comprehensive proprietary system, modern advancements in mobile technology, open source and generic software, and cloud data storage etc. mean a GIS approach is still possible.

With changes to government department structures and responsibilities over time it is difficult to assess whether any or all the recommendations outlined above were acted on. However, the response to the current incursion does beg an answer to that question.

It is interesting to look again at the economic worth of the subject industries. A February 2017 report stated that the dairy sector is the largest export sector for New Zealand and contributes $7.8 billion, or 3.5 percent, to New Zealand's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). According to Meat Export NZ, the value of total red meat and co-products exports for the season, covering the 12 months ended 30 September 2017, was $7.15 billion.

The beekeeping industry has grown exponentially over the past eighteen years, particularly in respect to product research, development and diversification. Apiculture New Zealand state that it is now a $5 billion industry, which puts closely behind the dairy or beef sectors. This is in the presence of disease and pest threats threat cost beekeepers and the government many millions of dollars annually and lead to substantial losses in bee numbers.

That fact should be some consolation for farmers facing the current cattle disease crisis. There is some light at the end of the tunnel, and the hope that their industry will also survive and eventually flourish. This may not be Armageddon or Utopia; but it is, after all, New Zealand.

By Linda Way


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