SEARCA leads National Forum on One Health Innovations

  • By Sarah Grace L. Quinones
  • 15 September 2020

Through SEARCA's Online Learning and Virtual Engagement (SOLVE) platform, the "National Forum on One Health Innovations to Mitigate Impacts of COVID-19" was convened on 26 August 2020 by SEARCA; SEAMEO Regional Centre for Public Health, Hospital Administration, Environmental and Occupational Health (TROPMED Philippines); and the Department of Agriculture (DA) and National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) of the Philippines. It was virtually attended by representatives from national and local government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations involved in human, animal, and environmental health. There were also participants who are faculty members, researchers and staff of state universities and colleges, and agriculture and industry players, particularly farm owners and members of farmer organizations.

Dr. Glenn B. Gregorio, SEARCA Director, welcomed the participants and emphasized that the forum is an avenue to discuss the emerging challenges of agricultural and health sectors, particularly during the pandemic and how different sectors can manage the risks.

The webinar discussed the emerging challenges in the agricultural and health sectors in the midst of COVID-19 and how One Health/EcoHealth approach as a concept could be better wielded in managing the risks related to the pandemic. The workshop highlighted the theory and principles of One Health/EcoHealth approach and its current applications and potentials in understanding the impacts of COVID-19, particularly to the farmers and farming families and communities. It also explained the interface between the health and agricultural impacts of COVID-19 and presented the possible priority areas and strategies across Agricultural and Health Policy Innovations to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 to the farmers and farming families in terms of immediate and long-term intervention.

The first set of presentations focused on "Understanding COVID-19, Risks and Challenges to Human and Animal Health, and Environment."

Specifically, Dr. Vicente Y. Belizario, Jr., Dean, College of Public Health, University of the Philippines Manila and Centre Director, TROPMED Philippines, focused the discussion on the health sector. He emphasized the government's response to the pandemic by creating an Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) at the national and local levels composed of technical experts including academe; decentralized health system in the country through local government units (LGUs) in analyzing the epidemiologic data as basis for the response; and the strategy of implementing lockdowns, social distancing and other health protocols. Overall, the "four-point strategies" of the health sector are to prevent, detect, isolate, and treat. Furthermore, he underscored the impacts of COVID-19 on agricultural communities and the efforts of the government to address them such as intersectoral approaches. He ended his presentation reiterating that collaboration is needed more than ever.

Dr. Ronello C. Abila, Sub-Regional Representative of the South-East Asia of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), provided the Animal Health perspective on a global scale in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. He discussed the presence of coronaviruses from wildlife, how it affects animals and was transferred to humans, and their organization's response to it. He gave an interesting discussion that the coronaviruses that we encounter as early as 2008 have zoonotic origins. From its original hosts like bats and camels, the virus was then transferred to an intermediary host which is civet cats before it finally infected humans in China. The OIE has a joint mission with the World Health Organization (WHO) to conduct further investigation in China to know more about COVID-19. Dr. Abila presented the hotspot areas where the possible early contaminations took place and the series of cases reported where there were human to animal transmissions. The OIE works in collaboration with Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and WHO in addressing COVID-19.

Engr. Roy M. Abaya, Director IV, DA-Field Operations Service, presented the 2020 Food Supply Outlook for Major Agriculture Products. The commodities mentioned in his presentation are rice, corn, fishery - milk fish, round scad, mackerel, tilapia, and, sardine, as well as pork and chicken, vegetables and some spices such as garlic and onion. The DA together with other attached agencies are working to ensure the country is food secure, especially during this pandemic season.

Dr. Jaime C. Montoya, Executive Director, Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD) as well as NAST Academician and Chairman of Health Division, gave his perspective and insights on the three earlier presentations. He said all the topics were explained very well and that indeed, more collaborations are being seen in recent years. He highlighted that such multi-sectoral collaborations should continue, especially in this prevailing COVID-19 pandemic.

This was followed by a presentation by Dr. Edwin C. Villar, former Deputy Executive Director for Research and Development, DOST-Philippine Council for Agriculture and Aquatic Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD). Dr. Villar pointed out that the first three speakers highlighted that the pandemic affected everyone and the farmers on the mobility, productivity and profitability. He said these are already old problems, but the pandemic made these problems worse. Dr. Villar reiterated that this is everybody's responsibility and the One Health approach can be beneficial to address the COVID-19 impacts.

The second set of presentations focused on "Research Priorities for One Health/EcoHealth Approach." Dr. Victorio B. Molina, Professor and Assistant to the Dean for Planning and Development, College of Public Health, University of the Philippines Manila and Deputy Director, TROPMED Philippines, shared the research priorities on environmental health under the National R&D Agenda for 2017-2022 such as responsive health systems, health resiliency and other research areas such as water sanitation and hygiene, waste water management, health care, and food safety. At the end of his presentation, he cited the need to conduct researches that are interdisciplinary and collaborative.

Dr. Ronnie Domingo, Director, Bureau of Animal Industry, provided the participants the list of possible interventions using the One Health approach on animal health, especially in disease surveillance for zoonotic diseases, development of portable rapid assessment tools and reliable diagnostic tool kits for frontliners combined with capacity building programs in LGUs, tracing of wildlife animals to describe the distribution of wild animals and trace emerging diseases and descriptive and theoretical research on epidemiology of important zoonotic disease to forecast future disease outbreaks.

Lastly, Dr. Rico C. Ancog, SEARCA Operations Consultant for Emerging Innovation for Growth and Associate Professor at the School of Environmental Science and Management, University of the Philippines Los Baños, presented research priorities using the One Health innovations framework in the context of the agriculture sector. Dr. Ancog presented SEARCA's 11th Five-Year Plan (FYP) which is focused on Accelerating Transformation Through Agricultural Innovation (ATTAIN) and has seven priority areas, one of which is One Health/EcoHealth in relation to agricultural and rural development. He underscored the transformation or a shift in perspective in terms of agricultural farming systems and farming communities in relation to a number of diseases. He said such paradigm shift covering various concerns is evident not just in the Philippines, but also globally. Dr. Ancog also presented the SESH framework—or the socio-ecological health systems, wherein the framework encourages future research, for example in the production sector, to find methods and approaches to put all of these together and touch all the areas mentioned. Dr. Ancog ended his presentation by underscoring that SEARCA believes that "ensuring a systemic transformation of the agricultural systems into resilient, sustainable, productive, and inclusive food systems would be crucial for the future of the Philippines and Southeast Asia."

As underscored in the conference, the One Health Innovations Approach provides a holistic approach in investigating, understanding, assessing, and mitigating the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic. Although at present, COVID-19 is obviously a health concern, the One Health approach highlights that the onset, assessment, and solutions of this pandemic will have to be a concerted effort of different sectors, including the animal, human, and environment sectors.

Mr. Joselito G. Florendo, SEARCA Deputy Director for Administration, closed the forum and emphasized the need for concerted action as the pandemic impacted everyone. He noted that the farmers and the farming communities may have faced an extra challenge because of the pandemic. He also expressed hope that the learnings from the conference will be translated into actual interventions and result in collective resilience from the pandemic. Ms. Rosario B. Bantayan, Program Specialist at SEARCA's Training for Development Unit, moderated the conference.