Horses dropping dead as government fumbles vaccine production at crumbling Onderstepoort Biological Products
With Onderstepoort Biological Products unable to supply vaccines, horses are dying of deadly African Horse Sickness and bluetongue is threatening the red meat industry. Below the surface of the escalating crisis are reports of missing millions and staff dismissals at the facility.
Without access to inoculation, hundreds of horses are dying from African Horse Sickness (AHS) and traumatised farmers have been posting horrific pictures of their animals in the throes of death.
The Red Meat Producers Organisation, meanwhile, has signalled a state of disaster in its industry, predicting a 50% livestock mortality and a threat to national food security.
Watching a horse die from African Horse Sickness is deeply distressing, especially as it is preventable. According to the DA shadow minister of agriculture, Noko Masipa, “Just seeing photographs of it made me shocked and sad”.
Following a high fever and difficulty breathing, the horse’s head, neck and body swell; it coughs, its eyes water and liquid drips from its nose. This is followed by coordination problems: the horse stumbles, falls and is unable to get up, its eyes dilating with fear. Unless it is put down, it drowns in its own body fluids.
The disease is transmitted by biting midges and there’s almost no treatment once contracted. The only defence is vaccination. There is a solution, according to Masipa, if Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP), a government entity, is prepared to outsource production to the private sector. But so far that’s not happening.
“OBP advised it will have a new freeze dryer up and running within 18 months to two years,” says Adrian Todd, who serves on the Equine Industry Vaccine Task Team. “The existing freeze dryer requiring repair will reportedly be back in production within a month.
“But should the repair not be successful by the end of April, capacity requirements for the upcoming vaccination season will not be met. The only short-term solution would be the implementation of a joint venture with private entities that have the freeze drying capability.”
This call is echoed by the Red Meat Producers Organisation.
“It is tragic… this could have been prevented if the proposed feasible action steps had been taken by the authorities,” said its chairman, James Faber.
“The lack of urgency by the authorities is extremely frustrating. Vaccines have to be produced by more than one service provider to discount the risk and ensure competitiveness.”
Horses in crisis
On the ground, the effects of absent vaccines are spreading. Marzanne Roets of the National Animal Health Forum says the impact on the livestock industry and the equine industry has been devastating.
“We’ve already seen an increase in bluetongue and African Horse Sickness, three-day stiff sickness (bovine ephemeral fever) and lumpy skin disease outbreaks. This has a massive economic impact on farmers, the industry and the country.”
She said that over the past 10 years, there’d been a periodic short supply of critical and strategic vaccines.
“We have always maintained a very good relationship with the facility at Onderstepoort. But over the past few years, communication and transparency in terms of product availability and technical issues have diminished.”
Gauteng horse owner Lins Rautenbach, who coordinates a horse care group, says the cost of testing for AHS – between R2,000 and R4,000, which the state does not cover – is masking the extent of the disease.
“AHS is a certifiable disease like rabies, but people don’t report it because of this cost, especially in rural areas. So we have no idea about the extent of the disease, but it’s for sure much higher than official figures.
“Also, our vaccine is 29 years old. Do you know how far science has come in 29 years? There are new strains being developed, but to get them approved you have to spend millions in field trials, which take years. How does that help horses? If OBP really cared, they’d have private companies ready to go.”
The Eastern Cape has been particularly hard hit by the absence of a vaccine. According to Carla Hazel of the Eastern Cape Horse Care Unit, horses in rural areas are dying in increasing numbers, especially north of East London and around Mthatha.
“Onderstepoort was charging R240 for the double shot. That’s hard for rural people with a number of horses. But now people are panicking because they’re trying to access the vaccine and there’s none. In the past, private organisations used to assist by making vaccines available for local horses, but this hasn’t happened for a long time.
“State vets are not able to access vaccines and not all are comfortable working with horses. Many are youngsters who aren’t employed to work over weekends when the races in communal areas are held.
“The little stock we have here, we’re saving for the younger horses,” said Hazel, “because they haven’t been vaccinated before and are most at risk.”
Horse owner Zimasile Dlani from Qonce (formerly King Williams Town) confirmed that horses were dying in the area through vaccine shortage.
“We didn’t get any vaccines last year and lost around 30 in the vicinity of the town. This year we have lost a further eight. North of the Kei River they are losing many more.”
According to KwaZulu-Natal livestock consultant Ndumiso Gule, 203 horses have already died in the province “and we are still counting.”
The latest reported equine fatalities at the time of publication (many more will be unreported) are:
Gauteng – 92
KZN – 203
Eastern Cape – 270
Free State – 31
NorthWest Province – 13
Northern Cape – 9
Mpumalanga – 46
Spotlight on Onderstepoort
There seems to be more to the vaccine problem than a faulty freeze dryer at Onderstepoort.
Established as a research facility in 1908, it falls under the Agricultural Research Council which deals with animal and crop science as well as research. At a certain point, OBP was corporatised as a state-owned enterprise involved with the manufacture and distribution of vaccines.
For more than 100 years, Onderstepoort has been renowned worldwide for its innovative research on livestock vaccine development. As a result of its advanced research capabilities over the years, many vaccines used globally were developed there, such as anthrax, live vaccines for horse sickness and blue tongue, lumpy skin disease, heartwater and Rift Valley fever, among others.
All these vaccines and strains were developed before the government became the sole shareholder in the facility.
According to Noko Masipa, “OBP has recently faced many challenges, including political interference, lack of expertise, outdated technologies being overtaken by newer, cheaper, safer and more effective technologies from other entities, and crumbling infrastructure caused by lack of maintenance.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Alarm sounded on shortage of livestock vaccines in South Africa
There’s also the matter of millions in public funds that appear to have gone missing. According to Masipa, the Agriculture Research Council, which oversees OBP, received R188-million in 2010 to build a Foot and Mouth Disease facility, followed by another R480-million. But 12 years later, the building is yet to get off the ground.
“In 2014, R500-million was approved by Parliament for OBP to upgrade the facility to address the challenges relating to vaccine production and the poor performances of certain vaccines. Almost 10 years later, the upgrades are nowhere closer to completion.
“In sum, just over R1-billion of taxpayers’ money was allocated towards livestock vaccine production with nothing to show for it.”
This was the poisoned chalice handed to Dr Baptiste Dungu, a highly qualified veterinary scientist specialising in animal diseases. He was appointed as CEO in March 2019.
An affidavit filed in the Labour Court in Gauteng in December 2022 by Dungu’s lawyer following his sudden dismissal revealed disturbing allegations of mismanagement at OBP.
One of the first things he discovered was that a vaccine facility upgrade, for which R493-million had already been received from National Treasury, had been stalled for five years. This was not being audited by the Auditor-General (AG) and Dungu recommended this be rectified.
There appeared to be clear irregularities and the AG recommended a forensic audit, which Dungu commissioned. Following internal investigations, several executives and other personnel were investigated and suspended. Some chose to resign.
In July 2020, Dungu uncovered what he described in the affidavit as “another massive fraud that had been taking place in OBP for several years in the procurement of services and goods”.
This involved 26 companies “doing tendered work for the OBP that was procured under suspicious conditions and connected to crucial, decision-making stakeholders, including staff and officials of the OBP”.
Essentially, fictitious companies were engaged in what the affidavit described as “syndicated corruption”.
During this process, the OBP board was replaced by an interim board that recommended the suspension of the acting chief financial officer, Zolani Poni, after potential tender fraud was discovered. A police case was opened.
Then, in October 2020, an entirely new board was put in place. However, instead of investigating allegations of fraud and corruption, it began investigating Dungu. It launched a disciplinary process and suspended him the day before he was to approve the initiation of a forensic audit.
According to Masipa, the facility has now lost most of its key personnel with specialist expertise who had been recruited to stabilise the facility and ensure the timeous supply of animal vaccines.
From Masipa’s oversight visits in 2021 and 2022, he found OBP lacks specialist expertise to stabilise the facility and ensure the timeous supply of animal vaccines. Since then, he says, vaccine shortages have worsened, leading to the current crisis.
When asked for comment on Dungu’s suspension, OBP’s acting CEO, Luvuyo Mabombo, referred the request to his legal department, which replied:
“As a responsible corporate citizen, OBP (as a business principle) subscribes to the principle of the Rule of Law. As Dr Dungu and Mr Mabena has taken the CCMA ruling to the Labour Court, the matter is still sub judice and it would be irresponsible for OBP to divulge information that is still subject to consideration by the Labour Court.”
The reference to “Mr Mabena” appears to be a reference to Lindiwe Mabena, the former manager of Dr Dungu’s office, whose contract was also terminated.
“I am concerned by the journalist’s statement [our request to Mabombo for comment] that the Newspaper is trying to tell your (OBP) side of the story. Otherwise, the weight of the story is his [Dungu’s] story that he was unfairly dismissed.
“Suffice it to say that Dr Dungu and Mr Mabena was found guilty in the initial internal disciplinary hearing as well as the internal appeal, both processes chaired by independent Legal Counsel. The transgressions that both parties were found guilty of were of such a nature that the sanction of dismissal was justified.
“Dr Dungu and Mr Mabena subsequently referred the matter to the CCMA. The matter was presided over by a senior CCMA Commissioner wherein the initial rulings of the internal disciplinary hearing and the appeal were upheld.
“Resultantly, OBP does not have a ‘side of the story’ and it would be disappointing if the newspaper were to publish an article wherein anything other is stated than that the rule of law has been and is still in the process of being followed.”
OBP has so far failed to submit a countering affidavit to the Labour Court, so the “transgressions” and reasons for the dismissals are not available. Daily Maverick’s lawyers commented that quoting affidavits from Labour Court hearings is not sub judice.
An insider who asked not to be named for fear of victimisation claimed “Dungu was cleaning up the place and that got him fired. OBP has become dysfunctional”.
He elaborated: “South Africa had to import 600,000 doses of [vaccine] from Botswana because we’ve lost the ability to manufacture it. Because of the freeze dryer problem, there’s also a shortage of blue tongue vaccine for sheep and vaccine for Rift Valley fever.”
According to another informant, the reason for the shortage of the African Horse Sickness vaccine has to do with the sale of local vaccines to Thailand in 2020, depleting the supply.
When the freeze dryer packed up, vaccine production never caught up.
Our source echoed the call by Adrian Todd for the government to ease regulatory bottlenecks and allow the private sector to step in to rescue the situation. As to the missing millions in funding, it seems a parliamentary inquiry is called for.
By early this week, a petition on Change.org by the DA’s Noko Masipa calling for vaccines to be sourced from private companies had received 10,700 signatures. DM/OBP