Beyond Borders: Navigating Biosecurity in Southeast Asia

Recognizing the richness of its biodiversity and the escalating threats posed by globalization, climate change, and human activities, Southeast Asia has early on acknowledged the importance of developing and maintaining robust biosecurity practices.

Biosecurity is defined by the 2020 WHO Laboratory Biosafety Manual as “principles, technologies, and practices that are implemented for the protection, control and accountability of biological materials and/or the equipment, skills and data related to their handling.” It essentially aims to safeguard human, animal, and environment from the threat, deliberate misuse, or accidental release of dangerous biological agents.

The Impacts of Globalisation, Climate Change and Human Activities on Biosecurity

One of the more pressing issues associated with biosecurity in Southeast Asia is the notable rise in the frequency and impact of transboundary disease outbreaks in recent years. In 2021, a significant 20 to 30 percent decrease in Vietnam’s pig population occurred as a result of African Swine Fever (ASF), causing severe economic losses primarily for medium to large farms lacking modernized equipment. Simultaneously, Central Luzon in the Philippines, a region known for its major contribution to the industry, witnessed an unexpected 50 percent pig production decline and incurred a loss of P100 billion due to the same disease.  This decline has led to a massive issue with food supplies in a country where, on average, 17.6 percent of the population suffers from food insecurity.

Another major biosecurity concern which warrants the implementation of strong biosecurity frameworks in Southeast Asia is the introduction of invasive alien species (IAS) as a result of extreme climate change. Under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), IAS are “alien species whose introduction and/or spread threaten biological diversity.” Indonesia has recorded 181 invasive species, while the Philippines has documented 148, and Malaysia has identified 145.  These IAS have depleted water resources, threatened indigenous species, harmed pollinators, and contributed to land degradation and poverty in the region.

Human involvement also exacerbates numerous global biosecurity issues, with Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) ranking as the fourth-largest criminal activity globally. Southeast Asia is a major hub for this illicit trade, resulting in an annual loss of over 100 tigers, 1,000 rhinos, 20,000 elephants, and 200,000 pangolins, among other various species.

In Indonesia, experts have consistently highlighted the biosecurity risk associated to the illicit Bali Bird, which, spanning two city blocks, is much smaller than Jakarta’s Pasar Burung Pramuka, the largest bird market in Southeast Asia. Notably, it also pales in comparison to the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, where COVID-19 is believed to have originated, potentially jumping from bats to another species before affecting human.

Whenever wild animals and people are in close proximity, there is always a health risk. Hence, the region must acknowledge the urgent need for coordinated efforts to address and mitigate biosecurity risks associated with such trade, as these animals may carry diseases that can cause transboundary disease outbreaks.

What has been done?

While there are still no dedicated regional instruments addressing biosecurity challenges, the nations in the region have actively initiated and supported various biosecurity programs to address the challenges posed by malicious biological entities. The ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Animal Health and Zoonoses (ACCAHZ) was established in 2016 to furnish policy and technical assistance to ASEAN member states in formulating and implementing regional strategies aimed at preventing, controlling, and eradicating transboundary animal diseases.

Furthermore, task forces like the ASEAN Working Group on the Illicit Trafficking of Wildlife and Timber, founded in 2017, along with initiatives such as the 2023 ASEAN Action Plan for the Management of Invasive Alien Species (IAS), have been instituted to protect biodiversity and mitigate biosecurity risks in Southeast Asia.

Finally, complementing the centres and working groups are workshops on biosecurity that were organized to enhance the preparation of states, facilitating the exchange of successful strategies in promoting confidence-building measures (CBM) related to the internationally recognized Biological Weapons Conventions (BWC).

Although none of the mentioned biosecurity frameworks is flawless or legally binding, due to the sudden emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, states have made notable efforts to implement and uphold them.  Lao PDR, for example, has revitalized its CBM submission process, aided by the European Union’s CBRN Risk Mitigation Centers of Excellence Initiative. In the same CBM context, the Philippines has facilitated training to design and provide technical support for other Southeast Asian countries. When it comes to the effectiveness of these new efforts, however, only time will tell.