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OBP on vaccine delays, improved efficiencies and communication

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Not only is Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP) not solely responsible for the biosecurity of the national herd, but media coverage of the state of disease outbreaks, such as African horse sickness, has been largely misleading, said Luvuyo Mabombo, interim CEO of OBP, during the organisation’s first media briefing in seven years.

“We manufacture vaccines based on information released by the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD), not based on media reports,” Mabombo said, adding that the mainstream media reports didn’t correlate with official records. “It is clear that somebody isn’t being upfront and honest.”

Dr Jacob Modumo, OBP’s marketing, sales and business development officer, concurred with Mabombo and used a graph (Figure 1) to illustrate his point. The graph was compiled based on information divulged by DALRRD. “We cannot manufacture vaccines based on media reports. We must base our production on official data.”

Read more about OBP here.

Figure 1: Overview of African horse sickness in the past 12 months.

Better communication planned

Despite manufacturing challenges, Mabombo believes one of the biggest reasons for the misconceptions surrounding the availability of OBP’s vaccines was the fact that the company largely relied on the databasis of retailers that distributed their products.

“Even if a vaccine is available at a retailer, it’s not to say that the product will show up on the retailers’ websites. This is very confusing and frustrating to our clients and can easily give the idea that a vaccine isn’t available. Just to give an example – while many clients complained about the unavailability of bluetongue vaccines, some stock was reaching the end of its shelf life in Limpopo.”

To overcome this issue, OBP is currently involved in finalising the proof-of-concept phase of a tailormade mobile application. “We are doing this in the form of a technology competition where we’ve invited technology students from various universities and technicians to develop an app for us,” Mabombo said.

“The idea is that a client should be able to go onto a free database presented in the form of an app, and be able to see where any type of vaccine is available at any given time.”

Addressing manufacturing delays

However, Mabombo admitted that the company struggled to produce enough AHS vaccines last year due to freeze-dry equipment that broke down at the end of 2020. “This forced us to stop the production of AHS, because the product’s efficacy would’ve been compromised if we tried to continue production without the machine.”

As the skills to repair the machine wasn’t available locally, OBP had to fly in technicians from Europe. Not only was it time consuming, but it was also expensive to procure these individuals, Modumo said. “We recently had to fly technicians in again. To obtain the skillset of two of the employees of the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to repair our equipment cost us €38 000 (almost R800 000).”

Meanwhile, OBP also decided to invest in bigger equipment, which had already been ordered from France. The team believes this will eventually help to dramatically increase OBP’s manufacturing capacity. “Currently, we are able to produce 65 000 vials of vaccine per batch, but once the new equipment is installed this will increase to 120 000 vials per batch.” The company hopes that it will reach this increased batch target within the next three years.

Another addition to OBP’s manufacturing line is a new vector animal research facility. The total cost of the project is budgeted at between R19 and R24 million, Modumo said. Any disease that is spread through vectors (e.g. ticks or mosquitoes) could be studied at the facility in future. After years of contemplating the idea, the facility was finally built over the past nine months and OBP hopes to have all the certification for the facility in place by the second half of the year.

“While the facility is being completed, we are already busy training our personnel inhouse, because a lot of skills – which we don’t currently have or don’t have enough of – will be needed to operate the facility,” Mabombo said. “We currently have several vaccines simply sitting on the shelf, because we cannot register a product that has not been properly tested. Therefore, this new facility will be a game changer.”

Once the new facility is fully functional, OBP believes it will be able to introduce a new vaccine to market every two to three years.

Playing vaccine catchup

OBP’s freeze-dry machinery have been repaired and the company has worked hard to catch up on increasing its vaccine stock. The current situation with regard to product availability is set out in Table 1, 2 and 3.

Table 1: Current situation with OBP vaccines currently in distribution.

African horsesicknessAvailable
Anthrax 100 mlAvailable
Blackquarter 100 mlAvailable
RVF LiveAvailable
Botulism 100 mlAvailable
Brucella CFT Antigen 20 mlAvailable
Elephant skin diseaseAvailable
Heartwater 9 mlAvailable
Pasteurella (cattle)Available
Pasteurella (sheep) 100 mlAvailable
Pulpy kidney (alum) 100 mlAvailable
Redwater Africa 5 mlAvailable
Redwater Asiatic 5 mlAvailable
Rift Valley fever InactAvailable
Tetanus (2 x 10 ml bottles in one distribution centre)Available
Wesselsbron diseaseAvailable

Table 2: OBP product packaging to commence in June 2023.

Blackquarter 100 mlAvailable
Brucella abortus S19 D25Available
Pasteurella (sheep) 100 mlAvailable
African horse sickness 12 dose packAvailable
Rift Valley fever live 100 mlAvailable
Wesselsbron disease 1 mlAvailable
Chlamysure vaccine 100 mlAvailable
Lumpy skin disease 50 DOSAvailable
Brucella CFT antigen 20 mlAvailable
Brucella MRT antigen 20 mlAvailable

Table 3: OBP products currently being produced.

B. phemeralAvailable in July
Brucella S19Available in August
ChlamysureAvailable in July
AHSAvailable in June
REV1Available in July
BTVAvailable in July
RVFAvailable in June
LSDAvailable in June

International positioning

As OBP doesn’t receive any state funding, it is solely dependent on sales to generate an income, Mabombo further said. Therefore, it was critical for the organisation to expand its horizons and see whether it couldn’t increase sales outside the borders of South Africa.

“However, it is crucial that South Africans should know that the protection of our national herd is our passion and first priority,” Modumo said. “OBP currently manufactures 49 different products, but only 12 are used internationally. The rest are all produced for the South African market. Therefore, it is clear that our business interests are definitely focussed on South Africa. After all – only a quarter (25%) of our revenue comes from the rest of the world.”

Modumo said while it was true that OBP manufactured AHS for Thailand, it is not true that AHS vaccines from South Africa were sent to Thailand. “We received an order for a strain of AHS that isn’t prevalent in South Africa, that specific product isn’t even registered for South Africa.

Why the delay in communicating?

After facing severe management issues, OBP currently has many new senior managers. In fact, five of the seven executives that joined the media session were only appointed during the last quarter of 2021.

Adv Pieter van der Sandt, OBP’s head of legal and company secretary, admitted to Plaas Media that it has been challenging to establish a positive working climate at the company, but said they were positive that things were turning around.

Mabombo said the leadership’s focus had mainly been on operational issues and that they knew they could do more to communicate to their clients. However, they only had one person working in the communication office and therefore it was a problem to communicate with the media. OBP’s management was positive about regularly meeting with the media to update them about developments at OBP going forward. – Susan Marais, Plaas Media

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