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Animal vaccine crisis threatens food security – private sector must be allowed to make jabs

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Noko Masipa is the DA Shadow Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development.

Year in and year out, farmers struggle to obtain vaccines for diseases such as bluetongue and African horse sickness on time because of the delays in producing them.

South Africa’s governance crisis has escalated to the point where it is threatening the country’s food security.

Despite red alerts from farmers and other stakeholders in the agriculture value chain about the dangers ahead, the government has responded in the best way it knows how: doubling down on red tape that is standing in the way of the private sector filling the service delivery gaps created by a faltering state.

There have been subtle attempts at government level to discredit calls by stakeholders in the agriculture sector who are petitioning the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development to allow the private sector to produce animal vaccines which are currently the exclusive responsibility of Onderstepoort Biological Products, a state-owned entity that reports to the department.

This pushback only helps to create confusion and stress among farmers who have borne the astronomical cost brought about by the death of their livestock.

In calling for private-sector participation in vaccine production, the intention is not to claim that the private sector has been completely frozen out. That was never the message.

The concern is the ineffective rate of vaccine production in a timeous manner by Onderstepoort Biological Products. While the private sector has made overtures to help develop vaccine strains, the reality is that such development will take between three and five years, excluding the regulators’ approval time frame, which could take another three to five years.

The total cost after eight to 10 years could exceed R20-million, with no vaccine in the market yet. The question is: why wait another five to 10 years to develop costly vaccine strains while the country has the strains in its possession, but is unable to produce them due to its inefficiencies?

Onderstepoort Biological Products was established more than a century ago, in 1908, and is renowned worldwide for its innovative research in livestock vaccine development.

Because of its advanced research capabilities, many vaccines used worldwide were developed by the company, such as anthrax (Sterne strain), live attenuated vaccines for horse sickness and bluetongue, lumpy skin disease (Neethling strain), heartwater and Rift Valley fever. All these vaccines and strains were developed before the company became corporatised with the government as the sole shareholder.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Eastern Cape a hot spot as African Horse Sickness sweeps across SA

It must be noted that the development of all these vaccines and strains was paid for by the South African taxpayer, so they should be public property.

Onderstepoort comprises three entities: the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute, now called Onderstepoort Veterinary Research, which is part of the Agricultural Research Council; the Onderstepoort Faculty of Veterinary Science, now part of the University of Pretoria (in 1973); and Onderstepoort Biological Products, which was corporatised as a state-owned entity (SOE) formed in 1992.

Challenges

Onderstepoort Biological Products has been plagued by many challenges which have placed South African farmers in a predicament as they struggle to obtain vaccines to protect the national livestock herd.

The causes of the shortages of vaccines are systemic and unlikely to be resolved any time soon. It is unlikely that the SOE’s major shareholder, the department, will be able to remedy the situation due to deep-seated operational challenges.

Recently, Onderstepoort Biological Products faced many challenges including political interference, a lack of expertise, outdated technologies being overtaken by newer, cheaper, safer and more effective technologies from other entities, and crumbling infrastructure caused by a lack of maintenance.

Year in and year out, farmers continue to struggle to obtain vaccines for diseases such as blue tongue and African horse sickness on time because of the delays in producing them. Recently, horse farmers have been sending horrific pictures of their dying horses. It is becoming unbearable, to the extent that some horse owners will struggle to recover from the trauma that they have endured as they watched their animals die in agony.

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

The veterinary doctors are at their wits’ end. Their big question always is: what do they tell these farmers when the vaccination period arrives and Onderstepoort Biological Products has no stock?  

In 2014, Parliament approved R500-million to allow Onderstepoort Biological Products to upgrade its facility from ISO 9000 compliant to Good Manufacturing Plant (GMP) compliance to address the challenges relating to vaccine shortages and the poor performances of certain vaccines. Almost 10 years later, the GMP is nowhere closer to completion.

In 2010, the Agriculture Research Council (ARC) received R188-million to build a foot-and-mouth disease facility, but 12 years later the building is yet to get off the ground.

Another R480-million was approved during the sixth term of Parliament to allow the project to go ahead. Just more than R1-billion in taxpayers’ money was allocated to livestock inoculation, with nothing to show to date.  

Currently, Onderstepoort Biological Products procures foot-and-mouth disease vaccines from Botswana because of the government’s inability to produce them locally.

If the government can source these vaccines from Botswana, why is it so difficult to purchase the production of bluetongue, African horse sickness and Rift Valley fever from the local private sector that is already producing some of the best livestock vaccines?

If this arrangement is agreed to, the state remains the owner of the vaccine strains’ intellectual property, with legally binding production arrangements in place between the state and the private sector.

Private-sector intervention

The South African livestock sector represents nearly 50% of the total value of agricultural production in the country, occupying an estimated 80% of available agricultural land and employing about 878,000 farmworkers. An industry of this size cannot be allowed to fail at all.

Farmers should be able to protect their livestock through timeous inoculation against untreatable viral diseases such as African horse sickness, Rift Valley fever and bluetongue.

Onderstepoort Biological Products is the only institution with licensed vaccine strains for bluetongue, African horse sickness and Rift Valley fever.

Because it cannot produce these three vaccines on time, the call is made to the government to find a way in the interim to allow private companies to use the registered vaccine strains – strains that have been developed by the Onderstepoort Veterinary Research Institute with taxpayers’ money – to produce vaccines that are constantly in short supply as a matter of urgency.

Further, they must ease the regulatory bottlenecks created by the Directorate of Agriculture around the registration of such vaccines. DM

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  • Ed Rybicki says:

    It really is beyond time that either new vaccine manufacturers are allowed to make these these now venerable vaccines – some of which date back over 50 years – or new versions are produced, with accelerated licensure. Food security is up there with human health security; our collective herd is a national asset, and it is not being protected.

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