Emerging technologies overshadowed in Senate biosecurity report: Illumina

EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES: Robert McBride leads the Asia Pacific team at global genomic company Illumina.

DNA sequencing technology could create a step change in Australia’s biosecurity, protecting agriculture industries and the country’s unique wildlife, according to global genomic company Illumina.

The power of this technology was demonstrated in the public health response to COVID-19, Illumina said.

But the power of this and other emerging technologies were overshadowed by other issues in the Senate Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport report on biosecurity preparedness, released towards the end of 2022, Illumina said.

“Genomic technology could revolutionise Australia’s biosecurity. It is important to take action now with an outbreak of the devastating livestock virus foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in Indonesia [in 2021]… highlighting what was at stake,” said Robert McBride, who leads the Asia Pacific team at Illumina.

The committee made 29 recommendations about biosecurity measures and response preparedness. The recommendations cover many issues about government frameworks and funding, with a strong focus on strengthening Australia’s borders and existing systems.

Emerging technologies could play a very important part in the biosecurity research, development and extension strategy that the committee recommended, but they were not explicitly mentioned in the recommendation, Illumina said.

“The report recognised the value of eDNA testing being used to detect khapra beetle and brown marmorated stink bugs and mentioned our recommendation that more innovative surveillance tools through genomic technologies, research and data to detect and understand an incursion and plan a response. However, we believe there is much more value to be gained by adopting new technologies,” he added.

Mr McBride and his team were one of more than 100 organisations and individuals that made a submission to the enquiry. Illumina’s submission outlined how genomics could support every phase of managing a disease outbreak affecting agricultural animals and plants.

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the urgent need to strengthen global pathogen monitoring and surveillance efforts. This will help to minimise the risk of future pandemics and zoonotic outbreaks that can have devastating economic and social impacts,” Mr McBride said.

Australia saw the benefits of genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 virus, Illumina said, with genomics providing insights into the virus’s spread and evolution, which informed public policy decision-making.

“The latest outbreak of FMD in our region underscores the importance for Australia to enhance its national biosecurity monitoring. With ongoing changes to our environment, climate, agricultural practices and global trade, various biosecurity threats will continue to present challenges to Australia,” Mr McBride said.

He said Australia needed a better integrated national surveillance and tracking response to major biosecurity threats including FMD – which the Senate Committee’s report acknowledges.

“Using next-generation genomic sequencing technology would provide rapid insights into the entry, spread and evolution of the disease. This would enable better informed decisions about interventions and potential treatments.”

Mr McBride said that Australian Government reports in recent years also supported leveraging technologies including genomics.

“The good news is that technical expertise, skills and capacity to use genomics to help manage animal and plant diseases are available in Australia and could be rolled out quickly,” Mr McBride said.

“Existing public health infrastructure, processes and expertise together with the established network of state-based animal health and quarantine laboratories provide strong foundation for translating best practices from public health to animal health and biosecurity.”

He said for this to be successful, Australia needed to take a similarly collaborative approach to biosecurity as was implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic.