There is one international agency we all tend to ignore: the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). This is the agency we propose to explore here. Ignoring OIE is likely a result of our zeitgeist: Our response to COVID-19 has been huge investments in human surveillance, understanding human transmission, human capabilities, and developing on that basis, vaccines and treatments. Surprisingly, there has been far less investment worldwide in zoonotic research, surveillance capabilities, and early warning systems, even though it is highly likely that our current pandemic was of animal origin.
That this should be the case is far from unusual since approximately 75% of recently emerging infectious diseases affecting humans are diseases of animal origin. As the Europe Office of the World Health Organization (WHO) pointed out, approximately 60% of all human pathogens (e.g. viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites) are zoonotic (diseases transmitted from animals to humans).
This human-centric approach is in some ways understandable in that we are “human”, and it is the morbidity and mortality of our species that are of the highest interest. At a global level, WHO is the lead entity in dealing with health issues and it has made important efforts to heighten attention to public health with its International Health Regulations (IHR) as a gauge of national capacity to deal with epidemics.
The IHR has undergone several iterations since it was first established in 2005, following instances in which weaknesses were found that led to the need for reform. As part of the IHR enhancement, a tool to assess in-country veterinary capabilities was included, designed, and implemented by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
The OIE participated in Joint External Evaluations (JEEs) of national systems along with other specialized agencies of the UN system, upon the specific request of member countries. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has also been engaged in evaluation exercises, though it has never been a lead agency in this regard – leadership in this area has always been the role of the OIE.
And that brings us to consider the history, budget, staffing, and influence of WHO compared to the OIE.
The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) compared to WHO: Born First but Far More Modest
We have all heard of the WHO, created in 1948 in its present form as a specialized agency of the United Nations, responsible for international public health. Despite recent skepticism about its handling and performance in notifying countries about the emergence of COVID-19, its two-year budget for 2020-2021 (it covers both assessed contributions from member countries and voluntary donations) is over $5.8 billion. WHO has a total staff in its Geneva headquarters and regional staff throughout the world of roughly 7,000 people.
WHO global responsibilities are vast, covering virtually every aspect of human medicine, medical training, technical assistance, reviews and approvals of new medicines and vaccines, and medical devices. In sum, its tasks are daunting, its institutional structure very politically complicated: Whenever WHO technical experts seek to focus solely on any one technical issue, member countries often tend to raise other policy or political matters of interest to them, complicating agreement on a specific action.
Now as to OIE:
Founded in 1924 to fight animal diseases at the global level, it is an intergovernmental organization responsible for explicitly improving animal health worldwide. It is independent of the United Nations and has an annual assessed budget which is combined with contributions to its OIE World Fund, amounting to an annual budget of approximately US $36 million. A paltry amount compared to WHO.
OIE staff is equally modest: approximately 120 people at its Paris headquarters and 15 staff in regional offices. The personnel is, by all accounts, all highly qualified and committed. Much like the WHO that draws medical personnel in its ranks.
OIE membership is similar to WHO: It has, as of now, 182 member countries, which are supported by its regional and sub-regional offices.
For many years, one of OIE’s major contributions has been the issuance of widely accepted standard codes on animal health, both terrestrial and aquatic, that help safeguard international trade in animals and animal products; the standard codes are regularly updated as new scientific information becomes available.
Given the COVID-19 pandemic, the OIE 88th General Session, scheduled to take place in May 2020, has been postponed until 2021. As a result of this postponement, no adoption of new or revised OIE International Standards will occur in 2020. Therefore, no edition of the Terrestrial Code will be published this year (2020). The latest version is therefore the 2019 edition.
Since 2005, the OIE has made yet another important contribution to the world’s knowledge base: It has created and managed the World Animal Health Information System (WAHIS) which, for 2021, provides information on over 120 diseases, helping to monitor and control them.
In light of the acceleration of zoonotic diseases, OIE developed and applied its widely recognized Performance of Veterinary Services (OIE Performance of Veterinary Services (PVS) pathway) which has been applied in a number of countries.
PVS is a cyclical process through which the OIE supports member countries to help them tailor their engagement based on their own governance and technical priorities. It evaluates, plans, and provides estimated costs for improving national Veterinary Services through a series of proven tools and methods (PVS Tool 2019), for evaluation and planning, and for targeted support.
It should be noted that the FAO is also an important collaborator in many aspects of the WHO/OIE underlying One Health Approach. (More detailed information about “One Health” is available on the One Health Initiative website as well as on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and One Health Commission websites.) FAO’s input is notable since this is a large United Nations technical agency with a substantial biennial budget (over $2.6 billion from assessed and voluntary contributions) and over 4,000 staff, tasked with a multifaceted mandate to lead international efforts to defeat hunger, improve nutrition, and food security, in short, a very diverse and challenging assignment.
Why the OIE Should be Strengthened
While many multilateral, bilateral, research, and donor institutions are engaged in looking into ways they can contribute to avoid another human, social, and economic disaster similar to the COVID pandemic, the primary focus has been on the human health side of the challenge. Far less attention has been paid to the animal origins, surveillance, and response.
This is strikingly reflected in the level of international institutional effort with much emphasis on improving and funding for WHO, in contrast to OIE. Clearly, the size and scope of the two institutions are vastly different, which translates into relative strengths and weaknesses in addressing specific problems.
WHO has an agenda that reaches every corner of public health, has staff and budgets (albeit insufficient), which vastly overshadows that of OIE. Yet OIE has a well-defined mission and a well-earned reputation for staying focused on it. This means it has enormous potential and the capability to be upscaled.
We need to make better use of the OIE to enable it to fulfill its defined animal health mission, including unique contributions to One Health interdisciplinary collaborations and developmental research.
Information about animal diseases should be available to everyone, especially those who depend on healthy animals for their survival. 👨🌾 🐮 🐷 🐥 👩🌾
— OIE Animal Health (@OIEAnimalHealth) March 16, 2021
With trillions of dollars in global economic losses and many billions invested in research and response, increasing OIE annual resources to $50.0 million or $60.0 million will be both prudent and not a big “ask” from public or non-public donors. It will potentially make a big difference in terms of more expeditious and efficacious human safeguards. Global leaders should “Carpe Diem”!
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: OIE Headquarters in Paris in the 17th Arrondissement Source: Wiki cc