Organic products from Onderstepoort: relevant or not?
With our economy effectively in intensive care after the devastation of Covid-19, one sector provides most new jobs and is in fact one of the few sectors to show growth. It’s farming.
See: The alarm has sounded over livestock vaccine shortages in South Africa
Agriculture is doing extremely well, providing much-needed food, jobs and exports. But are things as rosy as they should be? There could be a dark cloud on the horizon that many are aware of, but no one knows how to handle. It involves, yes, you guessed it, one of the largest state-owned enterprises in South Africa.
The livestock sector still accounts for almost 50% of the total value of agricultural production in terms of turnover. The sector has generally done well in South Africa and is an area that is also showing expansion into communal and ’emerging’ agricultural areas. It is also an essential element of food security in South Africa and the Southern Africa region.
Agriculture has been well supported by the government since the early 1900s. Our research capabilities have always been very good and have created the conditions for farmers to thrive in a continent where agriculture can be notoriously difficult.
One of the reasons for this is that many preventive measures have been taken to control the many animal diseases present in South Africa, as well as in most of sub-Saharan Africa.
Veterinary research facilities were established at Onderstepoort near Pretoria in 1905, developing into several world renowned institutions: these include the Onderstepoort Veterinary Research Institute (OVR, under the ARC – Council Agricultural Research), Onderstepoort Veterinary College (part of the University of Pretoria) and Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP), now an independent public company.
The OVR is expected to initiate new vaccine research, the veterinary faculty trains veterinarians and some paraprofessionals as well as academic research, and the OBP is expected to manufacture and market the products resulting from this research.
Vaccines are the main products coming out of OBP, controlling a variety of diseases that could otherwise seriously affect the livestock sector in South Africa.
Some of these game-changing drugs include vaccines for African horse sickness, Rift Valley fever, bluetongue disease, heartwater, anaplasmosis, water red, and lumpy skin disease. , to name a few.
OBP has always been the institution we would turn to in the event that a new livestock vaccine needs to be produced for an introduced disease that was not previously present in South Africa, or even a disease until then. unknown – (similar to what we experienced with Covid-19 in the human population, for example).
In 2014, R500 million was given to OBP to build a new vaccine factory to meet national and internal regulatory requirements, as Parliament realized the precarious situation SA would find itself in if we lost our ability to produce vaccines for livestock.
It is worth remembering that many vaccines produced at OBP are not available anywhere else in the world: compare this to the Covid situation, where vaccines may have been available outside of South Africa, but were difficult timely access. So, with a large portion of the vaccines produced by OBP, we have no one to turn to but OBP.
Where is the money?
So what happened to that 500 million rand? Almost eight years after the funds were made available, the OBP has little to show for it. Yes, initially almost R100 million was used to modernize offices, install private toilets for the CEO and build a new canteen; salaries have been paid (for a vastly bloated workforce that lacks many of the skills required to produce much-needed vaccines), and the doors are still open.
In the past few years, if you needed a vaccine, you could wait a bit, but you could at least expect delivery. Now even the delayed deliveries seem to have stopped – news is spreading that OBP is effectively defunct as a vaccine company.
In 2017, the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries appointed a new OBP board — the minister appoints all board members by law — who are committed to correcting the situation.
After a long and tedious process, Dr. Baty Dungu has been appointed as the new CEO of Onderstepoort Biological Products. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he completed his doctorate while working at the Onderstepoort Veterinary Research Institute. After working at OBP, he spent time in Morocco and Europe working and managing veterinary vaccine facilities.
Under his leadership, the construction of the vaccine factory was put back on track; suppliers were investigated, skills audits were conducted, senior managers were investigated and many “moved on”. Capacity was built by bringing in foreign consultants and using retired former employees to transfer skills to new employees. Within months, the vaccine supply improved and things were looking up.
However, not everything went smoothly. Disgruntled former employees began to influence journalists and several very negative articles were published: this seems to be a standard tactic in fighting back against sacked and corrupt employees in South Africa, and the OBP was no exception.
Some staff members, through their unions, began to make allegations against the new CEO. In December 2020, staff went on strike. Throughout this activity, the OBP Board stood on the sidelines and approved of the actions of the CEO.
In 2020, however, the term of the board expired and new members were recruited: it can be seen that very few of these people had experience in the field of vaccine production or even agriculture.
In any event, the CEO was summarily suspended and, after nearly eight months, remains suspended. Forensic investigations against those who “moved on” have been dropped. The minister appointed an interim CEO, who resigned after only a few months for health reasons.
With all these disruptions, the supply of vaccines seems to have come to a halt. The consequences could be disastrous:
- Good rains fell in South Africa during the 2021/2022 season, creating conditions where pests transmitting animal diseases usually thrive;
- Many animals that should have been vaccinated to prevent diseases transmitted by these parasites remain unvaccinated;
- The bovine, ovine and equine sectors could thus face a very gloomy year 2022.
Hopefully – a word our beleaguered state enterprises have taught us to rely on in the absence of delivery – that this doesn’t happen in 2022. would stop in 2020, which he certainly wouldn’t.
As an agricultural industry and society at large, we must therefore act collectively.
The OBP urgently needs proper professional management and to fulfill its mandate: accountability needs to be strengthened.
OBP needs transparency in investigating alleged criminal activity and incompetence.
Vaccine strains that have been developed by OVR with taxpayers’ money must be made available to private companies if OBP cannot guarantee vaccine availability within the next three months. This is essential for the maintenance of livestock and animal health in South Africa and neighboring countries.
We just can’t hope it will end well – we must try to help OBP work as it is supposed to, in any way we can. The alternative is to promote the production of veterinary vaccines by private companies, which may be the best solution.
Dr Pieter Vervoort, Private Veterinary Consultant, former OBP Board Member.
Dr Leon de Bruyn, President, South African Veterinary Association.
James Faber, National Chairman, Red Meat Producers Organization.
Dr. Alan Guthrie, Center for Equine Research.
Dr George de Kock, Chairman, International Wool Trade Biosecurity Task Force, Chairman, Cape Wools Research Advisory Committee.
Dr Alf Lategan, President, Ruminant Veterinary Association of South Africa.
Dr Faffa Malan, MD, Ruminant Veterinarians Association of South Africa.
Dr. Peter Oberem, veterinarian
Mr. Thililo Ramabulana, former President, OBP
Mr. Christo van der Rheede, Executive Director, Agri SA
Prof Ed Rybicki, Biopharmaceutical Research Unit, University of Cape Town
Prof Anna-Lise Williamson, Institute of Infectious Diseases and Molecular Medicine, University of Cape Town
Billy van Zyl, National President, National Wool Growers Association. DM/BM