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By Vukosi Maluleke

Digital Journalist

Horses racing against time as vaccine shortages pose fatal risks

Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP) says it has increased production to match market demand.

African Horse Sickness (AHS) vaccine shortages have left horse owners worried about impending fatalities and large monetary losses posed by the deadly disease.

AHS affects the respiratory and circulatory functions of Equidae species (donkeys, horses and zebras). Although it’s non-contagious, the disease is anthropod-borne and highly fatal.

Unfortunately, the sole producer of the vaccine in South Africa – Onderstepoort Biological Products SOC Ltd (OBP) – has been struggling to keep up with the high demand.

Ramped up production

OBP’s communication and CSI officer Zipho Linda told The Citizen repairs and maintenance of machinery had contributed to the slow pace of production.

Asked how many vials they had in stock on Tuesday, Linda said amounts varied daily.

“Stock levels vary everyday as we continue to replenish while servicing our back orders,” she said.

She also said OBP had ramped up production in attempts to alleviate shortages.

“OBP has increased production to a seven-day production week to match market demand,” she said.

How long before production returns to normal? OBP could not give an affirmative answer, but said they had extended production to keep up with high demand.

“There are times when capacity is stretched on a short-term basis, driven by inconsistent demand patterns,” Linda said.

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Racing against time

Meanwhile, the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) Gauteng office recently met with horse owners in Kyalami to discuss concerns around the AHS vaccine shortages.

Bronwynn Engelbrecht, DA’s shadow MEC at the Gauteng Department of Agriculture Rural Development and Environment (GDARDE), was concerned about OBP’s limited capacity to meet urgent demand.

“According to OBP, the target is 90 000 doses, which is very concerning, because a horse needs two doses to be inoculated,” Engelbrecht told The Citizen.

Engelbrecht claimed OBP had indicated during the meeting that they only had 60 000 doses of the vaccine at the time, which she said was 30 000 doses short of their target – aimed for end of October.

“The target theoretically meant OBP only had vaccines for 45 000 horses, while there’s an estimated 320 000 horses in South Africa,” she said.

Engelbrecht, a pharmacist by profession, said 180 000 horses had to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

Concerned about the financial implications of AHS, Engelbrecht said some horse owners had already experienced losses.

“Some of these horses cost R6 million … we’ve already lost a foal worth R3 million,” she said.

Hard to tell

When it comes to fatality and infection rates, Engelbrecht said it was difficult to quantify the number of horses affected by AHS due to non-disclosure by most farmers.

“Farmers are very scared to report [AHS-related] deaths, because then their farm or breeding centre would have to go into quarantine,” she said.

Despite legal obligations for farmers to report such cases, Engelbrecht said most simply opt to bury the dead horses without notifying relevant authorities.

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‘Decentralise production’

Engelbrecht proposed government decentralises the production of AHS vaccines by authorising private companies to produce the vaccine. This will allow the vaccine production to keep up with demand.

She said the DA had launched a petition, which gained more than 11 000 signatures, requesting the agricultural minister to authorise private veterinary manufacturers to produce the vaccine.

“The minister has to make that [decision] so other manufacturers can assist in production,” she added.

Engelbrecht also said OBP had the “raw material” required to produce the vaccine but they were not keen to share with other manufacturers.

“OBP is not allowing any other company. They’ve got the raw vaccine genetic material, which is needed if you want to produce the vaccine, and then [thery are] not prepared to share that with anybody,” she said.

“There are so many veterinary manufacturers that can assist in the production, so allow them to assist with a portion of the production, or let them do the [entire] production,” she said.

In response to Engelbrecht’s assertions, OBP said they had no market gate-keeping authority.

“As a vaccine manufacturing company ourselves, we have no hold over other vaccine manufacturing companies wishing to produce the AHS vaccine,” said OBP.

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Geared for court

Meanwhile, the South African Agri Initiative (Saai) has also started a petition with plans to pursue legal action against OBP.

Saai CEO Francois Rossouw said the petition resulted from numerous complaints received from owners whose horses died from AHS.

“The matter is only getting worse, and the chances of an epidemic are becoming more likely,” he told The Citizen.

Rossouw said the death rate was alarming, adding if no vaccine was administered this year, then mortality rate in the following year would be worse.

“Next year is going to be even riskier,” Rossouw said.

“Every time we skip a vaccination cycle, we risk a deadlier outbreak,” he added.

Rossouw told The Citizen that Saai had reached out to OBP but did not get a positive response.

“OBP has denied any request for information from us,” he said.

Rossouw said the Saai would include its correspondence with OBP as an annexure to their court application, which he said would be filed during October.

According to him, OBP kept “claiming” to have stock available – “but for some reason horse owners and suppliers of AHS vaccine are unable to get [stock]”.

Rossouw said Saai had contacted 36 suppliers of AHS vaccine who buy directly from OBP, but “none of them were currently able to purchase stock”.

“Only three of the 36 had a few vials at the moment,” he said.

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‘We have a strong case’

OBP said they were aware of Saai’s ongoing petition and had been in contact with the organisation.

“We are aware of this matter, and it is being addressed accordingly,” said Linda.

Set on legal action, Rossouw said Saai’s petition already had 12 000 signatures.

“We believe we have a strong case,” he said.

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