Can agtech infrastructure be redeployed for pandemic preparedness?

By Leah Sherwood, The Science Advisory Board assistant editor

August 14, 2020 -- Marshalling research equipment and expertise of the world's agricultural technology (agtech) laboratories could protect against future pandemics or epidemics, according to an article published August 6 in Nature Biotechnology.

The authors, who are agtech researchers from Canada and the U.K., argued that it would be relatively easy to repurpose the sophisticated, high-throughput equipment at agtech labs to carry out diagnostics and tracing in a human pandemic. Under normal circumstances, this equipment is used for crop and animal breeding, seed testing, and monitoring of plant and animal diseases.

"If there is anything this current pandemic has shown us, it is that we need to mobilize efforts on a large scale to ramp up diagnostics," said lead author Steven Webb, PhD, chief executive officer of the Global Institute for Food Security at the University of Saskatchewan, in a press release. "Agtech has the infrastructure and capacity to support this need through its versatile equipment that can be used for very large-scale and automated applications including genetic testing and sequencing, virus detection, protein analysis, and gene expression."

In the current crisis, there have already been several examples of manufacturers repurposing their normal "peacetime" production lines to battle COVID-19. These include cosmetic companies and distilleries making hand sanitizer, textile companies making medical gowns and face masks, and automotive manufactures making ventilators.

In the case of agtech labs, automated analysis of new plant varieties could be switched to the automated detection of viral RNA or proteins, as well as detection of neutralizing antibodies, in humans. Similarly, the infrastructure used to select the fittest plant cultivars for breeding could be repurposed for human diagnostic purposes.

The agtech industry already uses high-throughput data analysis and confirmatory molecular testing (polymerase chain reaction, DNA sequencing, antibody-based detection, and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry) for in-field plant phenotyping and input allocation, disease management, molecular breeding, and the development of new cultivars. Furthermore, agtech has been quick to adopt medical advances in genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics, gene editing, bioinformatics, cell-based assays, and high-content image analysis.

The authors suggested that the repurposing response at each agtech laboratory should be led by a dedicated peacetime quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) coordinator with a dual role as pandemic coordinator in times of national or international emergency. In peacetime, the QA/QC coordinator would be responsible for certification, accreditation, training, and validating new assays. In an emergency, the coordinator would oversee the switchover to pandemic preparedness and serve as the liaison with health authorities.

"The concept of an agtech pandemic response contingency represents an opportunity for the world to respond with alacrity to the next pandemic," the authors concluded.

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