The coronavirus pandemic, characterised by the strain known as Covid-19, has been an enormous wake-up call for all human beings, not least those of us who live in the westernised world, generally sheltered from the harsh realities of disease outbreaks that so many others in poorer countries have to survive.
This pandemic does not respect borders or nationalities and has caused havoc among those of us who were least expecting to be part of a crisis so often seen on our television screens but usually taking place far away.
Everywhere you look, our whole way of life – whether it be at work, socialising or travelling without restriction – has been turned on its head. If it has taught us anything, it is that vigilance at the start of any outbreak of disease, spotting it very early and reacting accordingly, is so vitally important in containing the numbers and spread of infection.
As humans, we were not ready for the coronavirus outbreak and as a consequence every door was closed too late to stop it spreading worldwide, with the devastating consequences we have all seen and experienced.
Britain is a trading nation and our politicians have found it impossible to close our borders completely to humans travelling from other parts of the world, even when the decision makers knew that this human disease was transported by the very people they were trying to protect.
Turning from one crisis to the possibility of another, our history of importing animal and plant diseases is no better. With the coronavirus pandemic in mind, this must the time to review all these movements to ensure that equidae in particular come under the correct veterinary checks, identification and quarantine, where necessary, before entering this country.
Our horses, and many of the diseases that affect them, are just as important to us and this pandemic should have taught us to be focused and ready, where the policies on human disease were not.
“We must not allow horses carrying West Nile Virus or African Horse Sickness anywhere near our shores”
In the International Collating Centre, we have a first-class surveillance team with an ability to monitor infectious diseases of horses and equidae from around the world and provide real- time reports on any equine outbreaks.
This world-leading service, previously based at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket but now supported nearby by the Levy Board, gives international authorities the information and warning on which they can act, so that everyone connected with horses, whether for racing or breeding, knows what is out there and where it is prevalent or causing a problem.
It is time we took notice of, amongst others, West Nile Virus in Europe and African Horse Sickness in Africa and the Far East. It would be negligent of us to allow horses carrying these diseases anywhere near our shores, and while, of course, we can try and create biosecure systems on our well managed studs, we cannot be immune from other equidae travelling together in numbers or being kept in much less biosecure situations.
These two diseases are spread by midges, or mosquitoes, and birds, and as we have already seen with farm animals, such devastating carriers can, under the right conditions, cross the sea from Europe and affect animals in this country.
Once an outbreak occurs, whole regions become quarantined and racing and breeding operations become severely affected. We need to be sure that in the case of an outbreak we have the testing facilities and appropriate quarantine measures ready to be put in place. We need to be organised and ready with the appropriate vaccines, if possible, and take heed of and learn from the specific problems that Covid-19 has caused.
We saw what happened with the equine influenza outbreak a couple of years ago, and the BHA’s decision to reduce the requirement to vaccinate every six months is of concern here. As if that was not enough, Contagious Equine Metritis (CEM) is lurking in the wings and we need a better vaccine for the Equine Herpes Virus.
So, let’s use the coronavirus pandemic and, dare I say it, new Brexit border controls to reinforce Britain’s requirements for the movement of horses to ensure the highest health checks and border security.