South Africa

LIVESTOCK DISEASES OP-ED

Onderstepoort Biological Products vows to tackle animal vaccine scarcity crisis, ropes in EU experts

Onderstepoort Biological Products vows to tackle animal vaccine scarcity crisis, ropes in EU experts
African Horse Sickness is spreading across South Africa amid a vaccine production crisis at Onderstepoort Biological Products. (Photo: Gallo Images / The Times / Sydney Seshibedi)

Onderstepoort Biological Products has encountered a series of formidable obstacles in recent times, but there is hope as the company has assured that, while there are still shortages of animal vaccines, this challenge will be resolved by August.

Meet Onderstepoort Biological Products, the superhero of South African animal vaccine manufacturing. With a mission to safeguard food security, human health and livelihoods, the state-owned company takes the stage.

Its mission is the development of innovative products and efficient manufacturing processes that ensure affordable and accessible vaccines for all. The company’s reach extends through diverse distribution channels, spreading its protective shield far and wide. With a dedication to preventing and controlling animal diseases, Onderstepoort Biological Products stands tall as a defender of the animal kingdom and a champion of our wellbeing.

Until recently, the company was making promising strides. Their mandate to prevent and control animal diseases that affect food security, human health and livelihoods held great potential. However, there has been a noticeable decline in their progress. The once-innovative development of products and efficient manufacturing processes seems to have slowed down. This disappointing turn of events has led to a lack of affordability and accessibility of vaccines, posing a problem for many.

Onderstepoort Biological Products has encountered a series of formidable obstacles in recent times, including political interference, a shortage of expertise, outdated technologies being overshadowed by newer and more cost-effective alternatives offered by external entities, and deteriorating infrastructure resulting from neglect and insufficient maintenance.

Consequently, farmers are locked in a perpetual battle to acquire timely vaccines for diseases such as bluetongue and African horse sickness. Delays in the production process have impeded their access to these vital preventive measures. A concerning report published by Daily Maverick in May revealed that a livestock consultant in KwaZulu-Natal shared distressing news that a staggering 203 horses had already succumbed to African horse sickness in the province alone. This alarming loss of equine lives highlights the urgent need for effective measures to combat this devastating disease.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Horses dropping dead as government fumbles vaccine production at crumbling Onderstepoort Biological Products

Onderstepoort Biological Products’ distribution channels, once varied and effective, now appear to be losing their reach. It’s disheartening to witness such a vital defender against animal diseases falter on its mission. Our hopes for the company to be a stalwart guardian have been met with disappointment and concern. Across the nation, farmers are voicing their grievances over the devastating loss of sheep and cattle herds. The absence of bluetongue and African horse sickness vaccines has left them defenceless against these diseases. Faced with such dire circumstances, some farmers have even contemplated resorting to illegal means to acquire vaccines, in a desperate bid to safeguard their valuable herds. The situation paints a bleak picture of the challenges farmers are grappling with in their battle to protect their livestock.

The scarcity of vaccines can have far-reaching consequences, including significant threats to food security and the export of livestock to international markets. In the event of widespread herd losses due to insufficient vaccinations, the nationwide demand for meat may come under threat. Moreover, the failure to adequately vaccinate livestock herds can jeopardise the country’s standing in international markets, since importers might hesitate to accept products from a nation that has struggled to protect its livestock. The foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2022 further reinforces the critical importance of ensuring adequate vaccine availability to maintain both domestic food security and international trade relationships, as the outbreak severely affected the trade in livestock and meat products.

Hope and progress

However, there is a sense of hope and progress as we reflect on the recent updates from Onderstepoort Biological Products. At a media briefing at their offices in late May, the company shared the heartening news that animal vaccine shortages have reached a point of stability in the country. While there are still shortages of vaccines due to low demand, the company assured us that these challenges will be resolved completely by August.

To accelerate this process and ensure a seamless production flow, Onderstepoort Biological Products has embarked on a remarkable endeavour by engaging international experts from the European Union. They are being recruited to lend their expertise in fixing the broken-down equipment at the vaccine-manufacturing facilities. This collaborative effort highlights a spirit of cooperation and instils a renewed sense of optimism for a swift resolution.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Alarm sounded on shortage of livestock vaccines in South Africa

Read more in Daily Maverick: Agricultural organisations and experts warn that animal vaccine production in SA could fail

Onderstepoort Biological Products acknowledges that the availability of vaccines depends on the demand for each product. With this in mind, it has diligently implemented corrective measures to optimise production and distribution. Furthermore, Onderstepoort Biological Products has extended a warm invitation to international experts from the European Union, emphasising their commitment to overcoming any remaining supply challenges.

As we look ahead, we can anticipate further positive developments. Experts are scheduled to inspect the equipment failures at Onderstepoort Biological Products, paving the way for comprehensive repairs and ensuring a more robust manufacturing process.

The company’s collective efforts and strategic actions ignite hope for an improved vaccine supply chain. The steadfast commitment of Onderstepoort Biological Products, alongside the support of international experts, reinforces the belief that a brighter future awaits, where animal vaccines are readily available to safeguard the health and wellbeing of our beloved animals. DM

Aisha Dhaler is an agricultural economist for Agri SA.

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