In an open letter by leaders in the livestock industry, role-players have demanded that much-needed vaccines “be made available to private companies if Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP) cannot guarantee the availability of vaccines in the next three months”.

This open letter was signed by leaders from well-known agricultural associations, such as the South African Veterinary Association (SAVA), Red Meat Producers Organization (RPO), Ruminant Veterinary Association of South Africa (RuVASA), Agri SA and the National Wool Growers Association (NWGA). It has also been signed by leading veterinarians and previous members of the OBP board, as well as various research institutions. Read the open letter below.

OBP: Relevant or not?

With our economy effectively in intensive care after the Covid-19 devastation, one sector is providing most of the new employment, and is in fact one of the few sectors showing growth. This is agriculture.

Agriculture is performing extremely well, providing food, employment and much-needed exports. But are things as rosy as they should be? There could be a black cloud on the horizon that many are aware of, but nobody knows how to handle. It involves, yes, you guessed it, one of South Africa’s (SA) more important state-owned enterprise (SOEs).

The livestock sector still represents nearly 50% of the total value of agricultural production in terms of turnover. The sector has generally done well in SA and is one area that is showing expansion in the communal and ‘emerging’ farmer areas as well. It is also an essential part of food security for SA and the southern African region.

Farming has been well supported by government since early the 1900s. Our research capabilities have historically been very good and have created conditions for farmers to thrive on a continent where farming can be notoriously difficult.

One of the reasons for this is that many pre-emptive steps were taken to control the numerous animal diseases present in SA, as well as in most of sub-Saharan Africa.

Veterinary research facilities were established in Onderstepoort near Pretoria in 1905 and have since grown into several institutions that are world-renowned. These include the Onderstepoort

Veterinary Research Institute (OVR), which falls under the Agricultural Research Council, Onderstepoort Veterinary Faculty, which is part of the University of Pretoria, and Onderstepoort

Biological Products (OBP), which is now an independent SOE.

OVR is supposed to initiate new vaccine research, the Veterinary Faculty trains vets and some paraprofessionals as well as doing academic research, and OBP should manufacture and commercialise the products that come out of this research.

The importance of OBP

Vaccines are the main products coming out of OBP, controlling a variety of diseases that could otherwise seriously affect the livestock sector in SA. Some of these game-changing vaccines include vaccines for African horse sickness, Rift Valley fever, bluetongue virus, heartwater, anaplasmosis, redwater and lumpy skin disease, to name only a few.

OBP has historically been the institution that we would turn to if a new livestock vaccine would need to be produced, for an introduced disease not previously present in SA, or even a previously unknown disease – like what we experienced with Covid-19 in the human population, for example.

In 2014, the sum of R500 million was transferred to OBP to build a new vaccine plant compliant with national and internal regulatory requirements, as the SA Parliament realised the precarious situation SA could be in should we lose our capacity to produce vaccines for livestock.

It should be remembered that many of the vaccines produced at OBP are not available anywhere else in the world. Compare this to the Covid-19 situation, where vaccines may have been available outside of SA, but were difficult to access timeously. Thus, with a large proportion of the vaccines produced by OBP, we have no one else to turn to but OBP.

Little to show for funds

So, what happened to that R500 million? Nearly eight years after the funds were made available, OBP has little to show for the money they received. Yes, initially nearly R100 million was used to upgrade offices, a private toilet for the CEO and a new canteen, salaries have been paid (for a vastly inflated labour force which lacks many of the skills to produce the much-needed vaccines), and the doors are still open.

For the past few years, if you needed stock of a vaccine, you would wait a while. However, you could expect some delivery. Now, even delayed deliveries seem to have come to a halt – and the news is spreading that OBP is effectively defunct as a vaccine company.

In 2017, the minister of agriculture forestry and fisheries did appoint a new board – the minister by law appoints all members of the board – who undertook to correct the situation.

After a long and tedious process, Dr Baty Dungu was appointed as the new CEO. Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he completed his PhD while working at the OVR, then worked at OBP, and eventually spent time in Morocco and Europe working for and managing veterinary vaccine facilities.

Under his guidance, the building of the vaccine plant was put back on track; suppliers were

investigated, skills audits were performed, senior staff were investigated and many ‘moved on’.

Capacity was enhanced by bringing in consultants from overseas and by using retired staff to transfer skills to new staff members. Within a few months, the supply of vaccines improved, and things were looking up.

Tumultuous times

However, not all went well. Disgruntled former employees started influencing newspaper

journalists, and some very negative articles were published. This appears to be a standard tactic in the fightback by dismissed and corrupt employees in SA, and OBP was no exception.

Some staff, through their unions, started making allegations against the new CEO. In December 2020, the staff went on strike. Through all this activity the board of OBP stood by and approved the actions of the CEO.

In 2020, however, the term of the board expired, and the entire complement was replaced with new members. We note that very few of these had any experience in the field of vaccine production or even agriculture.

In any event, the CEO was summarily placed on suspension – and is, after almost eight months, still on suspension – and forensic investigations against those who ‘moved on’ were dropped. The minister appointed an interim CEO, who then resigned after only a few months for health reasons. With all these disruptions, vaccine provision seems to have ground to a halt.

The bleak road ahead

The consequences of this could be dire:

  • Good rains have fallen in SA in the 2021/2022 season, creating conditions where parasites transmitting animal diseases generally thrive.
  • Many animals that should have been vaccinated to prevent diseases transmitted by these parasites remain unvaccinated.
  • The cattle, sheep and horse industries could thus face a very bleak 2022.

Let’s hope – a word our beleaguered SOEs have taught us to rely on in the absence of delivery – that this does not come to pass in 2022. However, to expect this would be akin to believing load shedding would stop in 2020, which it had most definitely not.

We as an agricultural industry and broader society, therefore, need to get our collective act together.

OBP urgently needs proper professional management, and to deliver on its mandate. Accountability needs to be enforced. OBP needs transparency in the investigation of alleged criminal activity and incompetence.

The vaccine strains that have been developed by OVR with taxpayers’ money must be made available to private companies if OBP cannot guarantee the availability of vaccines in the next three months. This is essential for the maintenance of livestock and animal health in SA and neighbouring countries.

We cannot just hope this will end well – we need to try to help OBP to function as it is supposed to, in every way possible. The alternative is to promote veterinary vaccine production by private companies, which may be the best solution.

This letter was signed by the following role-players in the livestock industry:

  • Dr Pieter Vervoort, private veterinary consultant and former board member of OBP.
  • Dr Leon de Bruyn, resident, SAVA.
  • James Faber, national chairperson, RPO.
  • Dr Alan Guthrie, Equine Research Centre, University of Pretoria.
  • Dr George de Kock, chairperson, International Wool Trade Organisation’s Wool Trade Biosecurity Working Group, and chairperson, Cape Wools’ Research Advisory Committee.
  • Dr Alf Lategan, chairperson, RuVASA.
  • Dr Faffa Malan, managing director, RuVASA.
  • Dr Peter Oberem, veterinarian.
  • Thililo Ramabulana, former chairperson, OBP.
  • Christo van der Rheede, executive director, Agri SA
  • Prof Ed Rybicki, Biopharming Research Unit, University of Cape Town.
  • Prof Anna-Lise Williamson, Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, University of Cape Town.
  • Billy van Zyl, national chairperson, NWGA. – Ursula Human, AgriOrbit