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BSL4ZNET COVID-19 Rapid Response: A True Example of Science Diplomacy

June 19, 2020
By: 
Olga M. Pena, PhD
MITACS Canadian Science Policy Fellow
Canadian Food Inspection Agency
Margaret Neuspiel, PhD
National Manager for the Office of the Chief Science Operating Office
Canadian Food Inspection Agency
Primal Silva, BVSc. PhD
Chief Science Operating Officer
Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Science plays a critical role in moments of crisis, where scientific knowledge, creativity and innovation can not only solve current challenges, but also drive and prepare the path forward for future events. However, working in silos as scientific institutions, or even as individual nations can slow down developments, lead to wasteful competitions and end in unnecessary redundancy. Diplomacy for science can overcome these barriers by facilitating, strengthening and advancing international cooperation and knowledge exchange between nations and their respective scientists. A key component to achieving optimal outcomes from science diplomacy is the development of scientific collaborations in moments of peace, that evolve into trusted partnerships, leading to robust benefits in moments of crisis. The Biosafety Level 4 Zoonotic Laboratory Network (BSL4ZNet) is a true example of achieving this goal.

Zoonotic diseases are caused by pathogens that are naturally transmissible from animals to humans. Some emerging zoonotic outbreaks, which are newly appearing in a population, have been considered a significant global bio-threat in recent years, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), H1N1 influenza, Ebola, and now Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). These serious emerging zoonosis have resulted in devastation to human health and can be detrimental to agricultural resources and national economies.

Science diplomacy is crucial to enhance Canada and the world’s preparedness and response to these zoonotic outbreaks, allowing efficient exchange of information, material and expertise. This can be achieved through international networks that can effectively coordinate global resources to better understand disease transmission patterns, assess risks and develop and apply situational awareness and management of emerging pathogens.

After the Ebola outbreak, in 2016, Canada took a leading role in addressing and improving bio-surveillance capabilities by hosting an international meeting led by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). This meeting engaged international partners and stakeholders including both scientists, decision- and policy-makers to support the establishment of the BSL4ZNet. This was the first step in developing a strategic direction and implementation framework for an international animal and public health network. Established to strengthen international coordination and improve knowledge sharing, the BSL4ZNet aims to leverage global capabilities to enhance preparedness for current and future emerging pathogens, applying a One Health perspective. The Network is currently a strong international consortium composed of 17 government organizations across 5 countries: Australia, Canada, Germany, United Kingdom and United States. Each government organization focus on animal or public health and possesses research and laboratory capabilities to work on emerging pathogens, such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Public Health Agency of Canada, who lead these efforts in Canada as a unified force.

The BSL4ZNet operates on four major pillars: (1) Training world class personnel, (2) Scientific excellence, (3) Institutional cooperation and (4) International response. Each working pillar has regular meetings and various organized events, including training workshops, scientist exchanges and quarterly science excellence symposiums. Thanks to these activities, trusted relationships have been built over time between scientists, laboratory managers, directors and policy-makers within the Network, establishing an important model of engagement and information sharing across government agencies. This has become a true example of science diplomacy that is now being leveraged to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result of these efforts, the Network was able to establish a COVID-19 Rapid Response Action Plan, to facilitate prompt, efficient and intelligence sharing through emergency meetings that have been organized since January, 2020. Attended by members of the international response working pillar and the Network steering committee, these biweekly meetings have served as an open and transparent space for exchanging knowledge, discussing challenges; as well as serving as a bridge to showcase common research interests that could lead to fruitful collaborations. These actions have resulted in impactful outcomes, including early engagement with research groups that were successful at isolating the virus (SARS-CoV-2), as well as sharing propagation protocols, actions that supported the implementation and improvement of diagnostic methods, and the initiation of research studies. Moreover, understanding the human-animal interface is a critical element for developing evidence-informed policies during any pandemic. Thus, important discussions about this subject and interconnectivity with global entities such as the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) have taken place, leading to impactful feedback on research needs for animal susceptibility studies and animal diagnostics. Sharing COVID-19 research plans have been a main outcome of institutional cooperation during these meetings, identifying common research interests and promoting collaboration among Network partners to pursue specific projects. Lastly, an inventory of coronavirus experts across the Network was generated, highlighting the robust presence of subject matter expertise, allowing Network partners to support each other throughout the pressures induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, the Network continues to advance science capacity with technical experts through its other pre-existing working pillars, including developing training seminars to learn more about SARS-CoV-2 associated laboratory techniques; discussing the proactive establishment of bilateral and multilateral agreements to facilitate future collaboration during the next global human or animal health crises; coordinating a scientific symposium on COVID-19 research convening scientists from academia, government and industry; and spearheading a table top exercise to develop and test a refined emergency response protocol informed by the events of the COVID-19 pandemic evolution.

Science depends on transparency, openness and trusted international collaboration to overcome a global health crisis. BSL4ZNet’s actions demonstrate these values and provide an example of science diplomacy: an alliance that endeavored over the years to build the trust needed to overcome challenges such as the present COVID-19 crisis, and strengthen capabilities for any future events.

Social Media
Twitter: @OlgaPena
Twitter: @MargaretNeus
Twitter: @PrimalSilva1