Issues Magazine

Converging Technologies for Biosecurity

By Greg Tegart and Stephen Prowse

The “converging technologies” approach – cross-disciplinary linkages with a common goal – has a role to play in Australia’s biosecurity capabilities.

The issue of biosecurity is of particular relevance to the Asia–Pacific region in view of the recent outbreaks of SARS and avian influenza. In the latter case, the H5N1 virus is now entrenched in much of Asia and has spread to Africa and Europe, raising fears of a pandemic.

While these two have attracted major attention, there are other virus diseases that have emerged and which also pose threats to humans and animals. Further, old diseases such as dengue fever and foot-and-mouth disease have re-emerged to cause costly epidemics. Overall, emerging infectious diseases are on the increase.

It is clear that there is a need to respond rapidly to outbreaks of these diseases in order to reduce the risk to public and animal health and the damage to the environment and to trade. There is a complex set of factors to be considered – social, economic and technological – in developing more rapid response systems. We believe that the effective use of information is the key to improved responsiveness.

With support from the then Department of Education, Science and Training through the Frontiers of Science program, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) and the Australian Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre organised a regional workshop on Converging Technologies for Biosecurity in Melbourne in June 2007. This workshop was based on the concept of “converging technologies”, in which enabling technologies and knowledge systems are linked together in the pursuit of common goals. In this case the goal was the application of a number of technologies to knowledge management in biosecurity.

The 40 participants from academic institutions and government agencies in Australia, China, Indonesia, Korea, Taiwan and Thailand examined the role of information in the biosecurity sector in Australia and the region from a variety of viewpoints. The areas of information generation and collection, information management, analysis of information, and use of such analysis were tackled – using a range of technologies including nanotechnology, genomics, bioinformatics, communications technology, biotechnology, modelling and risk management.

Such a diverse group would never normally meet to exchange information and to look for synergies between their areas of interest. The workshop paralleled a similar approach in an APEC Foresight Project, “Converging Technologies to Combat Emerging Infectious Diseases” being carried out by the APEC Centre for Technology Foresight in Bangkok. The aim was to build linkages across disciplines for a common goal: to identify critical issues in biosecurity and to make recommendations that could play a part in improving biosecurity capability in Australia and the region. In the Australian context this includes making an input into the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme’s biosecurity component.

Major Issues

Presentations from Korea, China, Taiwan, Australia and Indonesia revealed that all countries had made substantial improvements in their biosecurity and disease surveillance capacity since the 2002 SARS outbreak. A major component of this has been a significant development in web-based information collection systems. However in most – if not all – countries information flow remains a significant challenge. Thus in some developing countries in the region there are sophisticated diagnostic capabilities in major cities, but in smaller regional laboratories diagnosis remains difficult, as does the collection of data.

New diagnostic technologies were reviewed by a number of speakers, and it was clear that there has been extraordinary progress in developing technologies that allow multiplex testing and point-of-care testing. The development of new reagents has the potential to revolutionise testing for the presence of microorganisms. It is clear that the new technologies are far ahead of their adoption and application out of a quality-controlled diagnostic environment. The application and validation of new tests remains a significant issue, as does the need to ensure that they are used only for the purpose for which they are intended. The common need in developing countries is for cheap, rapid and reliable tests for use in the field.

The application of these new technologies in developing countries needs to be undertaken with great care, recognising the infrastructure, cultural and behavioural issues. The “people factors” remain crucial features of disease management. Thus participatory disease control, education and building and maintaining networks play an important role in disease control. The inputs from people in the field are vital as is their response to outbreaks.

The converging technologies approach has resulted in extraordinary advances in genomics and bioinformatics. This has flowed from rapid and relatively cheap genome sequencing of disease-causing organisms and vectors that has been developed in a research environment. These technologies are now widespread in molecular epidemiology and diagnosis. These applications generate large data sets that require powerful analytical tools. Analysis of these data has yielded extremely valuable information about the temporal and spatial origin, and movement, of disease-causing microorganisms.

The importance of information management becomes apparent when considering the vast amounts of information available through these new diagnostic and genetic technologies. When this is coupled to surveillance data it becomes clear that there is a need to increase automation in the collection and analysis of information.

The translation of research outputs into policy is of critical importance. Scientists and the public have differing perspectives on information and risk. Politicians and the public need a better understanding of complexity and uncertainty. Scientists need to understand that politicians have to make decisions in the absence of all the required information and when all the risk factors may not always be apparent.

Hence the transfer of information from the research environment into the policy environment is a critical component of biosecurity. This needs to be considered on an issue-by-issue basis.

However, irrespective of the issue, the key components are the people, the culture and the networks for transmission of information.

First published in ATSE Focus . Reproduced with permission. The strong support of the staff of ATSE, particularly Elizabeth Meier, and of the Centre for Strategic Economic Studies, Victoria University, is gratefully acknowledged.