The World Health Organisation (WHO), animal health and national defence officers this week called for wider international co-operation to avoid the spread of animal diseases that could be used as biological weapons.
Sixty percent of human diseases come from animal agents and 80% of the agents that could be used for bio-terrorism are of animal origin, said Bernard Vallat, director general of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
“History has shown animal diseases have often been used as weapons before. Advances in genetics can now make them even more harmful. So we are calling for further investment to be made at national level on bio-security,” Vallat said at a conference on biological threat reduction.
Diseases have spread from animals to humans for millennia, with latest examples including the bird flu virus that has killed hundreds of people around the globe.
The OIE and the WHO warned animal disease agents could escape naturally, accidentally but also intentionally from laboratories, to be used as bio-weapons.
Earlier during the conference Kenneth Myers, Director of the US Defence Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), part of the Department of Defence, stressed the need for international collaboration to avoid the loss of biological material.
“Terrorists have clearly shown they will use any weapons at their disposal,” Myers said, noting disease agents are easy to transport and difficult to detect.
Security breaches involving animal diseases are not rare.
The Pentagon said in May and June the US military had sent live samples of anthrax, which can be used as biological weapon, to five countries outside the United States and to dozens of US labs.
The conference on bio-threat reduction in Paris is the first to gather experts from the OIE, WHO, international police agency Interpol, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and representatives from the health, security or defence sectors of more than 120 countries.
“The aim is to have the same voice on this subject,” Vallat said. “International solidarity is key because any country that does not implement standards can be a threat to the entire planet.”