2021 (No. 2)

AHEAD Update

Dear AHEAD Colleagues:

This issue is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Gavin Thomson, long-time friend, AHEAD colleague, leading authority on FMD in southern Africa, and unabashed questioner of the status quo. May his life’s work continue to improve the lives and livelihoods of rural southern Africans and the resilience of the landscapes they depend upon. Please see In Memoriam below, as caringly crafted by Dr. Mary-Lou Penrith.

In Memoriam

Dr. Gavin R. Thomson, 1943 – 2021

Gavin Reckless Thomson was born in South Africa and grew up in the small town of Gwanda, Zimbabwe. He attended Milton High School in Bulawayo and had already developed an interest in becoming a veterinarian as well as a keen interest in natural history. He qualified as a veterinarian at the University of Pretoria in 1966 and served as a Government Veterinary Officer in Zimbabwe, during which time he gained his first experiences in control of foot and mouth disease (FMD). His interest in research was piqued and he moved from the field to the laboratory, and obtained an MSc degree in Immunology at the University of Birmingham, UK, in 1970.

In 1972, supported by funding from the Thoroughbred Association, he moved to the Royal Veterinary College, London, UK, where he was employed from 1972 to 1977 as a virologist, working on respiratory diseases of Thoroughbreds and obtaining his PhD from the University of London in 1978.

Gavin returned to Africa in 1978 to take up an appointment at the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute (OVI), where he was to remain in various positions, the last of which was Director of the OVI, until 2000. His research focus was on viral diseases of pigs, in particular African swine fever (ASF), rabies, and FMD. In 1988 he became head of the FMD laboratory, and later, when the OVI was taken over from government by the parastatal Agricultural Research Council in 1992, Director of the ARC-Onderstepoort Institute for Exotic Diseases, which specialised in research on epidemic animal diseases. In March 1998, after the amalgamation of that institute with OVI, Gavin was appointed Director of the combined ARC-OVI.

It is likely that Gavin’s interest in nature and wildlife directed his research towards viral diseases that involved wild species as hosts or reservoirs of the virus. He was particularly drawn to both ASF and FMD. His groundbreaking research on ASF provided answers to the remaining mysteries about how warthogs can and cannot transmit the virus to pigs. Gavin’s attention then turned to the natural reservoir host of the FMD virus, the African buffalo. He and his team investigated various antelope species and were able to provide additional evidence that of all the species examined, only the African buffalo acts as a reservoir host. The buffalo is better at keeping its secrets than the warthog, and Gavin was still engaged in trying to elucidate the intriguing question of transmission of FMD virus from buffalo to cattle, believing that we had some of the answers but more research was needed. Sadly that research will not be done by Gavin himself, but the legacy he left will surely inspire others to follow in his admittedly larger-than-life footsteps.

By the time Gavin left OVI he had become an internationally acknowledged expert on epidemic diseases of animals, in particular SAT-type FMD. He served as Vice President of the FMD and Other Epizootics Commission of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) from 1994 – 2000, and was elected to serve as President of that Commission from 2000 – 2003, and then to serve as a member of the Scientific Commission of the OIE from 2003 – 2006. From 1994 onwards he performed consultancies on the epidemiology and control of both FMD and ASF in several countries in Africa as well as the Philippines, Pakistan, India and Mongolia

In December 2000 Gavin was employed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations and seconded as the Main Epidemiologist to the Pan-African Programme for the Control of Epizootics (PACE), with its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. It was his dream job, to be directly involved in the epidemiology and control of epidemic animal diseases in multiple countries across the African continent. Like many dreams, there were a number of rude awakenings, because there is no doubt that animal disease control can and usually does become highly politicised and in his five year stint with PACE there were various bumpy patches, but on the whole it was a rewarding experience with many enjoyable travels, although his descriptions of travelling in convoys stopped by gunfire ahead makes one slightly less envious.

After the end of the PACE contract, he spent another six months in Nairobi as consultant to the design phase of the Global Alliance for Livestock Vaccines, based at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and in May 2005 returned to South Africa to set up his own consulting company, TAD Scientific, in which I was privileged to join him the following year. Through the company and on his own he continued to do consulting concerning FMD as well as international trade matters until towards the end of 2020, when ill health began to terminate a truly illustrious career littered with prestigious awards and appointments too numerous to cover here.

One of Gavin’s greatest talents and pleasures was scientific writing, and he was the author of numerous scientific articles and book chapters. While still at OVI, he and close colleague Prof. Koos Coetzer conceived of the idea of a comprehensive book on infectious disease of livestock. At the time many international researchers were reluctant to be associated with anything to do with South Africa, so the first edition was entitled Infectious Diseases of Livestock, with special reference to Southern Africa. With two other editors, they compiled a magnificent two-volume textbook that was published in 1994 and received national and international acclaim, including receiving two prizes: the Bill Venter Literary Award for the best academic book published by personnel of a South African University in 1996, and the Malbraut-Fenten Prize by the “Académie Vétérinairie de France” in 1998.

Gavin’s involvement in FMD resulted in his becoming acutely conscious of the plight of cattle farmers who were excluded from high value markets by the fact that they were situated in areas that were not free from FMD. In spite of, or perhaps because of his involvement in the standards for international trade in livestock and livestock commodities that depended on freedom from FMD of the area where the cattle were produced, he began to think creatively, something in which he had always excelled, and came up with the idea of alternative standards that would focus on the safety of the commodity, an approach that became known as Commodity-Based Trade (CBT).

The first paper proposing this, published in 2004, had a less than enthusiastic reception from those who saw anything but geographically-based standards as posing an enormous threat to the developed countries who were free from FMD. Nowadays, and largely due to his involvement with AHEAD, the concept is much more widely understood and accepted, some supportive OIE standards have been developed, and it is down to the rest of us who worked with him to make sure that his legacy is rewarded by CBT becoming an accepted norm rather than a second prize.

Gavin was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in October 2020, and in spite of putting up a brave fight that included enduring debilitating chemotherapy, on 23rd April 2021 he succumbed to the disease, leaving his wife Marguerite and three daughters (Charlotte, Rowena and Robyn), three sons-in-law and three greatly beloved grandchildren. May he rest in peace and may his great legacy live and grow through better integration of wildlife conservation and livestock production, with improved livelihoods for all who may benefit from either or both in our many interface areas.

Gavin’s family has assembled a moving memorial website here.

New Video

Foot and Mouth Disease: The Need and Opportunity for a New Approach in Southern Africa.

One of Gavin’s last contributions, this new video builds on his legacy of educating veterinarians as well as policy makers. By thoughtfully examining the differences between the SAT-type and Eurasian FMD viruses, more appropriate, sustainable solutions for managing the FMD problem in southern Africa are emphasized.

New Resources

Stephen C, ed, (2020) Animals, Health, and Society: Health Promotion, Harm Reduction, and Health Equity in a One Health World.
CRC Press

The Anthropocene’s triad of a global pandemic, climate change and the extinction crisis has caused pundits and politicians to declare that humanity is at a tipping point. This thought-provoking edited volume provides principles and case studies that can be applied to sustain and foster reciprocal care of people, animals and societies to help each cope with unexpected, often mutually reinforcing, threats.

Emerging Disease, Wildlife Trade and Consumption: The Need for Robust Global Governance.
Event recording

Our February 2021 virtual symposium explored ways to prevent future pandemics, with ideas shared by leading experts in public health and conservation. A recording of the event is now available.

One Year Later, We Still Have No Plan to Prevent the Next Pandemic.
The New York Times

Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column "One Year Later, We Still Have No Plan to Prevent the Next Pandemic" reports on the thought-provoking February webinar deliberations he generously moderated, helping us to introduce One Health thinking to new audiences.

EU Support to Commodity-Based Trade and Livestock Traceability in Botswana.
EU Newsroom

A recently launched EU-Botswana cooperation project provides critical support for implementing CBT in northern Botswana. The project will be implemented by Conservation International, together with CLAWS Conservancy and Wild Entrust Africa.

Barbed Wire Dismantled at Russian-Mongolian Border for the Free Migration of Wild Animals.
WWF News

This article provides an uplifting example of fence removal work taking place along the Russia-Mongolia border to allow for wildlife migration.

Upcoming Meetings

69th WDA & 14th EWDA Joint Conference Virtual event 31 Aug-2 Sep 2021

Originally planned to take place in Cuenca, Spain, the meeting will be transformed into a digital one. Professionals working in wildlife health management as well as students, researchers and those concerned with the wildlife-domestic animal-human interface are invited to this unique opportunity to share their knowledge.

As always, if you have items for the next AHEAD Update, please just let us know – thanks.

We will miss our good friend and colleague Gavin immensely, and we remain committed to doing all we can to continue AHEAD’s important journey on to completion.

Yours in One Health,

Steve & Shirley

Steve Osofsky, DVM
Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine
Jay Hyman Professor of Wildlife Health & Health Policy
AHEAD Program Coordinator

Shirley Atkinson, MSc
Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine
Assistant Director, Wildlife Health & Health Policy
AHEAD Regional Coordinator

What is AHEAD?

AHEAD works to create enabling environments that allow different and often competing sectors to literally come to the same table and find collaborative ways forward to address challenges at the interface of wildlife health, livestock health, and human health and livelihoods. We convene stakeholders and provide technical support and resources for projects locally identified as priorities. AHEAD, one of the first applied One Health programs, recognizes the need to look at health, disease, and the environment together, while always taking a given region's socioeconomic, political, and policy context into account.