Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC RN

23 April 2020

FRAN KELLY: Well Australia is on a mission to recruit international support for a bold plan which would see pandemic investigators enter any country believed to be the source of a virus outbreak such as the COVID-19 catastrophe. The initiative, giving health inspectors the same powers essentially as UN weapons inspectors.

And that's not the end of it. The Morrison Government is also putting pressure on China on another front with demands that international experts be sent in to scrutinise its wildlife wet markets, believed to be the source of the coronavirus which has now killed more than 182,000 people worldwide.

David Littleproud is Federal Agriculture Minister. He joins us from Toowoomba. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: This plan of yours, you want greater scrutiny of wildlife wet markets. Is that a concession that China will never close them down? That they are here to stay?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, well let me just make the first point. We need to differentiate between a wildlife wet market and a normal wet market.

FRAN KELLY: Yeah.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: A wet market, like the Sydney fish market, is perfectly safe. People should, should not worry about that. Wet markets can sell fish and fresh fruit. But when you add wildlife, live wildlife, exotic wildlife, that opens up human risk and biosecurity risk to the extent that we have seen. And in fact, China themselves reported this to the World Organisation for Animal Health that that was the cause of COVID-19.

So it only makes sense that we go and look at these wildlife wet markets and ensure that we understand the science behind them and are we able to mitigate the risks that they pose, and if not where, where do we go as a global community. We've got to understand the world's become a lot smaller, we've seen that through COVID-19, and we've got to make sure that we protect one another and we do it in a calm methodical way predicated on science.

This isn't a witch hunt. This is just about protecting one another in a calm methodical way, calling on international experts to look at this through science, through the prism of science, and give us the understanding to make the right decisions about this - whether it be in China or in other nations that have these wildlife wet markets.

FRAN KELLY: Yeah. That's important, isn't it? It's not just China. I mean these wet markets - some of them, not all of them but some of them - are selling illegally caught and traded wildlife animal species, so there's that whole issue there. But the issue of whether they can be made safe, can hygiene measures be taken to try and stop the transmission of virus between animals and humans at any of these markets that have wildlife at them? No matter whether they're in China, or African countries, or Southeast Asian countries?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: And that's the question we're asking, and in fact Australians …

FRAN KELLY: What are the scientists telling you? What are you hearing?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: What we look our, even our Australian Chief Veterinary Officer is telling us that he believes that they may need to be phased out. But we need to make sure that we get the science first, and I'm taking his advice, and we want to do that in a calm methodical way, not in a confrontational way, but to work through and understand how wet markets can keep people fed. But when we add this extra dimension to it, can we look at ways to mitigate that. And if we can't, well then we need to, as global citizens, work together with those nations that have these markets, to work with them to phase them out in a way that protects their food security but maintains the safety, the human risk and the biosecurity risk to everybody and to every animal on the planet.

FRAN KELLY: Because you're not just concerned about human health, are you? You also, you raised this issue with the G20 agriculture ministers last night and you raised it on the basis that you're also concerned about threat to agriculture. Is that right?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well definitely. And as I say agriculture, we've got live trade of animals and we've got, as I say we're a small world, the world's intertwined now. And so as global citizens, we've got a responsibility to mitigate and manage these risks together, not just within borders, but together and that was the point I made at the G20 Ag ministers.

This poses a real threat, not just to human health, to food, but to food security around the globe as well. And that's why it's important that we work collectively, that we put aside any feelings and basically look at it with transparency and openness; call on international experts to calmly methodically work through this and to give us the answers that we need as a global community to work through this to ensure we're protecting human life and protecting our agricultural framework that underpins our food security.

FRAN KELLY: Early in April, the UN Biodiversity Chief also called for a global, global ban on these wildlife wet markets. So you know, obviously Australia is not the first one to do this. China put in place a temporary ban after SARS. Obviously, inspections aren't doing the job there necessarily because we've seen what's happened in Wuhan. But, so the UN is already leading this call.

What kind of response did you get from the agriculture, the G20 agriculture ministers? Is there an appetite to somehow make this happen? This crackdown on wildlife markets?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, I was the only one that raised it, sadly, as a real risk to human health and to biosecurity wellbeing of our agricultural production system. So we'll continue to work with our G20 partners but also we intend to engage with the World Organisation for Animal Health. They would be the independent body that could go and work within these wildlife wet markets, and make sure they get the science, and draw on other independent scientific experts to help them get the information we need, and we do that together as a global community.

And whether that's in China or anywhere else and I do acknowledge the fact that China has previously temporarily closed these wildlife wet markets down but we need to continue to understand the science of it. As biology evolves, as we evolve we need to understand how that science interacts, and how do we keep ourselves safe in that.

FRAN KELLY: All right. You're making this call for inspectors at the wildlife wet markets. At the same time the Prime Minister has been talking to world leaders, Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron - about a plan for something equivalent to health investigators to enter any country suspected of starting an outbreak like this, a pandemic. That's just going to inflame tensions with China, we already know that it has when Marise Payne made the call on Sunday.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well obviously we're trying to have an honest conversation. The world is smaller. This is, this has not let any nation get away from COVID-19. And as a global community we've got to be mature enough to have the conversation. And that's what we're starting.

FRAN KELLY: Yes. But is it now the time to have the conversation? I mean, the French President Emmanuel Macron, I understand, says now is not the time for an international investigation. We heard one of the British ministers say we're in the middle of dealing with this, we'll get to that later. Is now the time to be having this conversation?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we believe that if we can put in place the conversation now and start to consider the framework around that review into the WHO, and that should be done about, after every crisis you should look back and reflect, and understand what worked well, what didn't. And that's really ...

FRAN KELLY: Of course, after every crisis. But we were in the midst of this crisis. That's the, there seems to be the point of tension with some.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We are. But I mean, in Australia we think we can chew gum and walk at the same time and that's what we're going to do. I mean, we're going to look at this in a calm, methodical way but we want to start the conversation, we want to start the thought process about how we would face one of these challenges again and what that process would look like - what the management of pandemics in the future, and what we've learned from this, and how do we do it better. There's, no one should, should feel aggrieved by this, this is simply what anyone and anything should happen in respect to these types of events and we're doing that and we're having, starting that conversation as a global citizen.

FRAN KELLY: All right. Well China clearly does feel aggrieved by it and we've already seen their comments earlier this week. Could I just move on to the issue of food production? The Head of the UN's World Food Program, David Beasley, has warned that the world is facing a famine of biblical proportions, pointing out more than 30 developing countries are on the brink of humanitarian and food catastrophe.

How to get the food where it's needed, especially with supply chains disrupted by the pandemic? Have you, are you dealing with this issue? Are you talking to the UN about what Australia might do to help? And was this an issue around the G20 last night.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So the, it was. And in fact, it was raised that there is no risk to our food supplies, it's actually, the quantity of food is there, it's actually the supply chains that are strained at the moment and those are issues that we need to work through. And we made it clear that we're prepared to work cooperatively with any agency around ensuring that food supply and the supply chains are maintained with the continuity that you would expect, that is the challenge. It's not the level of food that's produced in the world, it's simply, it's actually the supply chains. So…

FRAN KELLY: And what's going on with those supply chains? Because a few countries have banned or limited food exports to shore up supplies at home. Russia has, Thailand has, Cambodia, I understand. Is this, are you concerned that this pandemic is being used by some countries as a cover to ease, say, trade barriers?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, in fact I raised that as well. That was the other significant point that I made on Australia's behalf was that the best way to improve food supply chains was to improve trade and that is not just around reduction of tariffs, but around technical barriers, to allow the free flowing of trade between countries of food production.

So it's important that we don't use that as a mechanism for countries to benefit themselves on trade perspective. And in fact the WTO we're on that call, and in fact made that point as well. That it is very important that they don't, that countries don't use this as a trade mechanism, as a trade barrier because that will have an impact on the movement of food around the globe and in keeping people fed.

FRAN KELLY: David Littleproud, thanks very much for joining us.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: David Littleproud, Minister for Agriculture and Deputy Leader of the Nationals.