The COVID-19 outbreak is gripping our planet like no other health crisis in recent history. Overt collaboration and policy action are required to meet this challenge and, as importantly, prepare for the future. Elevating and prioritizing the interconnectedness of living things through One Health strategies and modernizing America’s animal biotechnology regulatory approach are two policies Congress and the White House must confront. In fact, they are long overdue.

Sixty percent of human diseases begin in animals. Scientists are confident that the COVID outbreak originated in bats and then was spread through another animal and then to humans, like the 2002-03 SARS outbreak. As the climate changes and populations grow and move, these zoonotic diseases will become more prevalent and potentially more dangerous.

Aside from the dreadful health implications, the resulting economic costs of a pandemic are profound. The World Bank estimates that, between 1997 and 2009, the global costs from six zoonotic outbreaks exceeded $80 billion. While we won’t know the total impact for some time, COVID-19 has already produced one of the sharpest economic downturns in U.S. history and is costing the U.S. treasury alone trillions of dollars. 

Society was woefully unprepared for this pandemic. We must employ modern approaches to be ready for future outbreaks. One Health collaboration eliminates barriers that often exist between human health, animal health, and environmental health strategies to create smarter, multi-faceted and coordinated efforts.

BIO supports legislation such as the “Advancing Emergency Preparedness Through One Health Act of 2019.” This bill would direct the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to coordinate with other agencies and state and local leaders to advance a national One Health framework to better prevent, prepare for, and respond to zoonotic disease outbreaks like COVID-19. Congress and the White House must factor One Health into their efforts to address future pandemics.

Animal health and wellness is a critical component of One Health strategy. To help the U.S. better prepare for the future, we need changes to the U.S. animal biotechnology regulatory system. The U.S. government’s current approach to regulating animal biotechnology as a “new animal drug” has all but destroyed investment and blocked market access for a host of beneficial products.

Biotechnology, for example, could arm pigs with resistance to African Swine Fever. Similarly, scientists have developed a chicken that is resistant to contracting and transmitting avian influenza. 

Other innovations in animal biotechnology may be able prevent, prepare for, and respond to outbreaks of infectious diseases such as coronavirus, Ebola, MERS, Zika, among others, by providing prevention strategies and treatments for humans.

Unfortunately, the United States regulatory system for animal biotechnology is not appropriately science- or risk-based, and as a result we are falling behind other countries, such as Brazil, where innovative start-ups are finding more support. 

Indeed, despite decades of animal biotechnology research and advances, only one biotech food animal has been approved to date – the AquaBounty salmon – which languished in the U.S. regulatory system for more than two decades and still has not hit the market because of political interference

The current crisis underscores the urgent need to break down roadblocks to progress. 

BIO is calling on the White House to direct the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the USDA to clarify within 30 days a plan to overhaul the current regulatory approval process for animal biotechnology.

In a letter sent to the President, BIO implores the need for a new approach that 1) more appropriately draws upon existing legal authorities to safeguard animal health, food safety, and the environment; 2) incentivizes research and investment in the technology; and 3) ensures safe and affordable products reach consumers as soon as possible. 

A joint agreement between both agencies will help farmers, innovators, and consumers realize the benefits that modern technology can bring to the United States and the world. And just may well prevent the next potential animal to human disease outbreak.

Dana O’BrienExecutive Vice President, Food & Agriculture Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO)