Emerging Biological Threats and Pandemic Preparedness Workshop – Key Takeaways and Event Highlights

Thu, 27, June, 2024 by Food from Thought

Food from Thought’s Emerging Biological Threats and Pandemic Preparedness in Our Agri-Food System Research Integration Workshop took place on Thursday, June 13th, 2024, in Guelph, ON. This research integration workshop brought together leading researchers, industry experts, and policymakers to discuss practical solutions to fortify our defences against emerging pathogens.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fundamental vulnerabilities in how we detect, monitor, and respond to emerging biological pathogens. Despite medical advancements, novel pathogens continue to spill over from animal reservoirs and spread rapidly through our interconnected world, threatening our agri-food system. Preparing for the next pandemic requires a coordinated, transdisciplinary approach targeting critical areas like agricultural biosecurity, antimicrobial resistance, public health infrastructure, and surveillance of zoonoses while leveraging the power of big data analytics.

The workshop was attended by over 80 researchers and professionals across various sectors, including the University of Guelph (UofG), Arrell Food Institute, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Agribusiness (OMAFA), Public Health Agency of Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Livestock Research Innovation Corporation, Feather Board Command Centre, and key industry commodity groups. This workshop was moderated by Wilton Consulting Group.

Ready or not, here they come: Biological threats in the livestock sector

The workshop was opened by Dr. Shayan Sharif, Interim Associate Vice-President of Research (Agrifood Partnerships) at UofG. He highlighted Food from Thought and the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance as leaders in multi-disciplinary research to enhance agricultural safety. Sharif emphasized the importance of collaboration between researchers, industry, and government for pandemic preparedness within this sector.

Mike McMorris, Chief Executive Officer at the Livestock Research Innovation Corporation delivered an impactful keynote highlighting the need for efforts to enhance our limited understanding and defenses against emerging pathogens. He identified social media as an advantageous tool in informing relevant audiences, as long as misinformation is handled accordingly. McMorris insisted that COVID-19 and past pandemics should be utilized as learning tools to help develop strong procedures to protect against threatening viruses and pathogens. After shining light on some recent advancements, McMorris shared his ideas to further improve pandemic preparedness including better information sharing, early warning signs, better biosecurity, taking on a one-health perspective, engineering better farms, utilizing AI as a tool, and increased funding to support research efforts.

Using big data to improve surveillance of emerging biological threats

During the first section of research project snapshots, participants heard from leading researchers at UofG on how big data can be used to monitor pathogen emergence and spread effectively and efficiently. Dr. Lawrence Goodridge, Professor of Food Science and the Director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety on his key findings from his wastewater surveillance project during the COVID-19 pandemic. He presented wastewater surveillance as a tool for active surveillance, which can allow early detection, assist in monitoring community health, and assess the risk of disease transmission in agriculture.

Dr. Nicole Ricker, Assistant Professor at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) spoke on the Diversity of Antimicrobial Resistance and Transfer Elements – Quantitative Monitoring Platform (DARTE-QM) which addresses surveillance of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) across a One Health Spectrum. Ricker’s platform classifies AMR risk by potential mobility standardizes integration into risk assessment frameworks, and harmonizes data.

Dr. Tanya Rossi, Animal Health Network & Data Manager at the Animal Health Laboratory highlighted the Ontario Interactive Animal Pathogen Dashboards, which can be utilized to provide real-time data to enhance animal infectious disease surveillance in Ontario. These dashboards provide visualization and description of disease trends over appropriate temporal and geographic resolution. These dashboards are available to veterinarians, researchers and industry groups.

Following the keynote and research project snapshots, participants were provided with reflection questions and engaged in roundtable discussions to share their perspectives and expertise with each other.

Working together to prevent and address emerging pathogens

The workshop also featured a panel of avian influenza experts brought together to discuss collaborative approaches to prepare for the next pandemic, moderated by Dr. Bronwynne Wilton, Principal and Lead Consultant, Wilton Consulting Group. The experts included Dr. Shayan Sharif, Interim Assistant Vice-President of Research (Agrifood Partnerships) at UofG, Dr. Yohannes Berhane, Head Research Scientist of the Avian Diseases Unit at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Dr. Harold Kloeze, Executive Director of the Feather Board Command Centre. Sharif, Berhane, and Kloeze shared success stories in disease monitoring and reporting through effective collaborations. In addition, these panellists shared their expertise and advice in proactively responding to future threats, emphasizing the need for vigilant preparations, filling research gaps, developing vaccines, efficient pattern recognition and information sharing.

Strengthening our defences to fight biological threats

The second set of research snapshots highlighted cutting-edge research at UofG that looks at how we can strengthen our defences to fight current and future biological threats. Dr. Kelsey Spence, Assistant Professor at OVC discussed that while biosecurity practices can safeguard both veterinary and human health, there remain motivators for, and barriers to, biosecurity compliance. She suggested utilizing qualitative and quantitative approaches to determine whether and how people use biosecurity practices. She shared key findings from her research which identified the lack of shared responsibility and defined roles and fatalistic attitudes invoked by larger threats as major barriers to compliance. She concluded by sharing the benefits of improving biosecurity compliance, including reduced risk of pathogen spread, reduced outbreaks, and improved veterinary and public health.

Dr. Nitish Boodhoo, Research Associate at OVC addressed the need to curb avian influenza virus (AIV) (H9N2 and H5N1) infection and spread by studying the application of inactivated vaccines and innovative mRNA vaccine treatments in avian species. He explained that mRNA vaccines provide a rapid and low-cost option without the need to grow large quantities of a virus. Boodhoo emphasized that treating AIV with mRNA vaccines would enhance poultry health and increase food security while providing economic benefits and public health protection.

Marzieh Soltani, a PhD Candidate in Computer Science shared her work on designing, developing, and validating a decision support system (DSS) for situation assessment, forecast, and control of avian influenza outbreaks in various geographical scales. Soltani described her extensive user engagement model, including user interviews, usability testing, prototype testing, and improvements based on feedback to ensure that the end users can benefit from the developed DSS.

Dr. Greg Worley, Director, Animal Health & Welfare and Chief Veterinarian of Ontario, OMAFA, closed the workshop following another roundtable discussion where participants explored opportunities to advance collaborative efforts and identify a path forward given the knowledge and insights gained from the workshop. Worley emphasized the importance of collaboration and information sharing across industry, government, and research to effectively tackle the many challenges we face.

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Visual notes by Alex Sawatzky, Creative Advisor, Arrell Food Institute.

Visual notes summarizing information discussed during the keynote, titled “Ready or not… here they come!” by Mike McMorris, Chief Executive Officer at the Livestock Research Innovation Corporation.

Visual notes summarizing information from panel discussion, titled “Working together to prevent and address emerging pathogens” with Dr. Shayan Sharif, Interim Assistant Vice-President of Research (Agrifood Partnerships) at UofG, Dr. Yohannes Berhane, Head Research Scientist of the Avian Diseases Unit at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Dr. Harold Kloeze, Executive Director of the Feather Board Command Centre.