A shortage of animal vaccines in South Africa spells impending disaster for Mzansi’s vibrant livestock industry if it doesn’t get rectified very, very soon. The shortage comes as the country’s primary vaccine provider – Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP) – is experiencing ongoing production issues.
OBP is a state-owned animal vaccine manufacturing company mandated to prevent and control animal diseases that impact food security, human health and livelihoods. It is critical to the sustainability of South Africa’s livestock industry and worried experts say further delays in fixing the issues will let herd immunity deteriorate and result in serious disease outbreaks.
In a recent meeting with Thoko Didiza, South Africa’s national minister of agriculture, land reform and rural development, representatives of the National Animal Health Forum (NAHF) highlighted the dangers of inconsistent vaccine availability. This included the threat to national herd immunity, food security, income security and the threat of zoonosis, which is the passing of animal diseases on to humans.
The NAHF comprises of key stakeholders including Agri SA, the Red Meat Producers’ Organisation (RPO), the South African Poultry Organisation and the African Farmers’ Association of South Africa (Afasa).
Inconsistent availability holds dire consequences
According to Gerhard Schutte, chairman of the NAHF and chief executive of RPO, given the country having experienced vaccine shortages throughout 2021 already, a continuation of this will compromise the herd immunity of livestock in the country.
“We already had a year or so where some of these vaccines were not available. If we don’t rectify that very, very shortly, herd immunity will just deteriorate further and then we will have serious outbreaks,” Schutte says.
Some of the shortages farmers and veterinarians experienced were vaccines for Rift Valley fever (RVF), bluetongue, African redwater, lumpy skin disease and horse diseases like African horse sickness (AHS).
Rift Valley fever is a highly infectious zoonotic disease, which means it is transmittable to human beings and in the case of AHS, Onderstepoort is the only manufacturer of the vaccine in the country.
Livestock exports under threat
The livestock industry contributes about 50% of the agricultural gross domestic product (GDP) and its hugely important export activities can easily be jeopardised by vaccination shortages.
Schutte says that, if certain vaccines were not available, trade with international partners would be halted very quickly.
“For instance, we export livestock for slaughtering purposes to the Middle East. 60 000 sheep go onto a ship. When that ship leaves, [the animals] must be vaccinated for bluetongue and Rift Valley fever. If there is no vaccine available, we are compromising our exports.”
To everyone’s relief, South Africa has not had an outbreak of Rift Valley fever this year but, if one does occur without the availability of the vaccine, it could spell disaster, Schutte cautions.
“If we have an outbreak of Rift Valley fever, many of our trade partners will stop imports overnight, especially on the wool and the mohair side. On the meat side as well. This is really impacting on all the livestock industries.”
Ongoing issues at Onderstepoort
According to Zipho Linda, OBP’s communications specialist, vaccine supply challenges have been with the entity for the past ten years, “mainly due to equipment breakdown. Equipment is aged and is currently being replaced.”
She says OBP has a medium- to long-term plan to address the inconsistency of vaccine availability.
Meanwhile, the NAHF recommends that the OBP speeds up registrations under the Fertilisers, Farm Feeds, Seeds and Remedies Act 36 of 1947, allows intellectual property (IP) sharing, and allow for private veterinary companies to play a bigger role in the sector.
“We have OBP producing vaccines, but we can’t rely only on OBP, especially if there’s been a track record of non-production or non-availability,” says Schutte.
“So, the private sector must play a very, very big part in future. That is risk mitigation and it’s also good in terms of [price] competitiveness.”
Involving the private sector means that OBP would need to release the intellectual property for some of the vaccines. This could potentially ease the issues around production, Schutte reckons.
Intellectual property debate
Schutte feels that intellectual property sharing will be in the national interest. “Some of the private companies already have those [vaccines] but they are not registered. They should be so they [can] be put in a position to produce the vaccines as well.
“The solution is: speed up the registrations [so] private enterprise can come to the table. There are quite a few vaccine-producing companies in South Africa very high-tech and that can come to the table very quickly.”
The NAHF has also pledged to look into mechanisms that allow for the emergency registrations of vaccines within the ambit of the Medicines and Related Substances Act No. 101 of 1965 as well as the Animal Diseases Act 35 of 1984.
However, Linda says that the country’s vaccine manufacturing industry is an open market. “OBP supplies the market with approved and registered vaccines. A number of other private manufacturing companies also participate in the market with registered and non-registered vaccines.
“As a public company that has invested in its research and development to develop its vaccines, OBP has the right to protect its intellectual property.”
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