Compromising herd immunity

Compromising herd immunity

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For those working with animals, vaccines are a staple of daily life and operations. Without them, modern animal husbandry is to all intents and purposes not possible.

Recent developments have brought this into stark relief.

Transmitted mostly by insects, African Horse Sickness (AHS) is a set of viral conditions that hits equines, with horses being most susceptible, targeting their respiratory and cardiac systems. Depending on the strain, infected animals will struggle to breathe, develop fevers, froth at the mouth and nostrils, begin to bleed through the eyes and mouth, and experience swelling of the head. The fatality rate of domestic equines, horses in particular, is between 50% and 90%, again depending on the strain (wild equines, such as zebras, tend to be more resistant to it).

It is a constant dread to horse owners, the more so since horses – whatever an individual animal’s specific function – are animals with which their owners form strong emotional bonds. Speaking to those who’ve lost them to this disease is to traverse a course of pain and emotion. ‘It’s been a tough night,’ said Llynn du Plessis, who works with horse health and is a prominent activist around this issue, in a morning message.

AHS is exceedingly difficult to treat, and once a horse is infected, all that can be done is to mitigate the symptoms – but an infection can be warded off with timeous vaccinations, provided of course that they are available to be administered.

Over the past weeks, AHS outbreaks have focused attention on South Africa’s vaccine supply chain. As Farmer’s Weekly put it: ‘African horse sickness cases are reportedly rising amid vaccine shortage’. Media reports indicate that some 300 horses have died of the disease since February, having been detected (at this writing) in every province except the Western Cape. These numbers are probably partial and understate the severity of the problem.

Up close

To understand this issue, the Daily Friend spoke to a number of people who had seen it up close.

AHS is endemic to southern Africa, and so is a constant risk. The timeous supply of vaccines is therefore critical. For AHS, the only registered vaccine is produced by the state-owned Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP) – but the company has simply not been producing anything like the quantities required.

Summing up the experience of many of his peers, one farmer put it to us: ‘Yes, it is a real problem. Many owners could not vaccinate last year as there just weren’t vaccines available. We were very lucky. I foresaw the shortage which started becoming a problem in 2021 so we ordered and paid for vaccines for all of our horses and clients’ horses at the beginning of February 2022, so we managed to be fully vaccinated. We did the same this year. We put in an order through our vets, as they are the first to receive from the wholesalers.…

‘The wholesalers are on a backlog at Onderstepoort Biological Products (the only manufacturer of the vaccine). However, people who have been on the waiting list from last year are still waiting for their orders to be fulfilled. It’s a huge problem.’

Note that this issue is not one to have arisen suddenly in the past few months. Indeed, a quick Google search shows just how regularly equine diseases and vaccine shortages have come up. It’s in fact been a live problem for at least a decade.

René Wessels, a Free State farmer, indicated that concerns around AHS and vaccine shortages were raised as long ago as 2010 by equestrian bodies in the Eastern Cape. Engagements between people involved in the horse-rearing community and the government followed shortly thereafter.

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‘As early as the 2010/2011 AHS season, vaccine shortages [were being] discussed between horse owners and breeders, in conversations on different forums and structured meetings, either in the various sport disciplines or in breeder societies,’ Wessels says. ‘The scale with regard to shortages was “small” in comparison to the current situation but concerns were then, already, raised.’

Raising the issue for years

The National Animal Health Forum (NAHF) – an alliance of private sector interests – has likewise been raising the issue for years.

What confronts the country now is not entirely new, although the severity of the matter seems rather more dire than in the past.

As South Africa’s government-owned manufacturing facility holds an effective monopoly on the production of AHS vaccine, any interruption in OBP’s capacity to supply has enormous ramifications.

Earlier this month, a reply to a Parliamentary question confirmed that AHS vaccines were ‘out of stock’ at OBP, although with the pledge that the ‘It’s been a tough night,’ said Llynn du Plessis, who works with horse health

However, in a notice put out on 14 April by the Equine Industry Vaccine Task Team – the name is self-explanatory – it was reported that production had not commenced. The issue was connected to non-functional machinery, specifically repairs to a freeze dryer and installing a new machine (a longer-term issue). Production was envisaged to begin at the end of April.

René Wessels remarks: ‘As a horse owner and a farmer I understand the importance of core vaccines for the wellbeing of our beloved horses and healthy livestock for food security. That said, I know no vaccine is foolproof. Vaccines do have limitations. With the current shortage in numerous vaccines produced by OBP we are denied the opportunity to make informed decisions.’

A part of the problem is that vaccines have to be administered in good time to build up immunity. This demands proper planning.

Marzanne Roets, National Coordinator of the NAHF, told us: ‘Some vaccines take time to work and for a herd to show immunity. These are for instance the vaccines that are used for vector protection. The vaccines are administered before the rainy season to give immunity to the animals before the vectors (insects) are busy during and after the rainy season. This includes African Horse Sickness, Bluetongue, and Rift Valley Fever.’

Not confined to horses

Henry Geldenhuys, President of the Transvaal Agricultural Union, adds that the issue is not confined to horses, nor to the question of vaccine production. He adds that it’s crucial to maintain an appropriate cold chain to retain a vaccine’s potency. The latter demands well-maintained infrastructure and the competent management of logistics, something that South Africa’s power challenges make very difficult. (An aside: last year, OBP announced that it was forced to destroy a batch of vaccines because of load-shedding…)

Speaking for numerous other farming interests that we’ve interacted with, Geldenhuys points to shortages of vaccines across the board, for a number of diseases over a sustained period. This – which is not only a matter for horse owners, but for farmers engaged with all forms of livestock – is turning biosecurity into a particularly serious challenge for the agricultural industry. Persistent failures to vaccinate would compromise the immunity of the national herd, with dire consequences for above all the livestock industry, the supply of meat and for export earnings.

For the farming community, this is a matter that affects all, whether thoroughbred rearers, commercial cattle farmers, wool farmers or small-scale operators who rely on horses for draught and plough work.

And for those with no connection to farming, the impact extends beyond obvious concerns of food security. Compromised animal health expands the risk of zoonotic diseases, that is, pathogens being transferred to humans from animals.

So, what to do?

OBP is a national asset that needs to be revitalised. By all accounts, it has been subjected to the unfortunate processes that have beset many other state-owned entities: corporate government maladies, poor management of the plant and so on. Large amounts have been voted to try to recapitalise and upgrade it, and a multi-year plan exists to support it.

Distress in the state-owned sector

But this is not a total solution, nor should we bank on it, given the distress in the state-owned sector.

The obvious solution is to source vaccines elsewhere. To some degree this is done. As Marzanne Roets told us: ‘There are some vaccines that have been registered by private manufacturers and have been released to the public. There are currently some vaccines in the final stages of registration which will be great news for the livestock sector. We have amazing vaccine manufacturing facilities in South Africa and therefore we feel with a combined effort we will be able to supply the national herd with the needed vaccine.’

She adds that some vaccines – such as to combat a recent Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease outbreak in the Northern Cape and Western Cape – have been imported.

But frustrations exist about hold-ups in the registration of new vaccines. There are also pointed questions asked as to the institutional interests of the State and OBP and whether they are enthusiastic about the prospect of enhanced competition. OBP limits its cooperation with other institutions as a measure to protect its intellectual property and commercial interests. It is an interesting challenge to say the least. As René Wessels remarks: ‘National government promulgates the rules and regulations determining vaccine usage. Is this not an effective monopoly? Is this the principal reason why there is little or no pressure on OBP to improve and upgrade their old vaccine?’

Wessels goes on to cite a number of options for AHS vaccines, such as that developed by Central Veterinary Research Laboratory. Importing would be an option if the necessary clearances could be obtained. Yet the country remains dependent on OBP.

It’s all a salutary reminder of the connections between nature, governance and wellbeing. And for people like Llynn du Plessis, sadly, more tough nights await.

Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.

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