Parliament grills OBP on vaccines

Members of parliament have found Onderstepoort Biological Products’ response to claims that some of its vaccines have failed somewhat unconvincing. Denene Erasmus reports.

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It hasn’t been an easy year thus far for Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP), which might face civil suits from farmers seeking compensation for financial losses incurred following the death of large numbers of livestock as a result of allegedly ‘faulty’ Rift Valley fever (RVF) vaccine.

The OBP has also been criticised for alleged failures of its African horse sickness (AHS) vaccine and came under fire in parliament recently when presenting its strategic plan for 2012/13 to the Portfolio Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Newly appointed CEO, Dr Steven Cornelius, tried his best to convince committee members of the good quality of vaccines being produced by OBP, but they seemed unconvinced.

“Farmers are worried and many rumours are doing the rounds. If OBP does not provide accurate and honest information that will calm people down, these rumours will only spread faster and wider,” committee member and DA MP Annette Steyn told the OBP delegation. She has been raising the issue of the deficiency of state-produced vaccines for a number of animal diseases, including RVF and AHS in the media this past month. However, she was denied access to the OBP facility during a recent visit.

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“As affected agricultural businesses are reportedly lodging complaints with OBP following the deaths of thousands of livestock and seeking compensation for the financial losses incurred as a result, one has to wonder what OBP is trying to hide,” Steyn said in a statement.

During the parliamentary meeting, Steyn and other committee members asked the OBP whether it still has the capacity to conduct research that will ensure vaccines are effective in preventing the spread of diseases it aims to control. The committee also accused the OBP of not taking farmers’ complaints seriously. “When your customers complain, you have to listen to their complaints and do something about it,” said committee member and ANC MP, Salam Abram.

Meanwhile, Dr Patricia Hanekom, an independent non-executive member of the board of directors at OBP, told the committee the OBP would suffer “massive reputational damage” if the impression is created that its vaccines aren’t effective. She said there’s nothing wrong with the vaccines produced by the OBP and even asked members to act as advocates for the quality of product.

Quality tests
“We test every batch of vaccine and if a batch fails the test, that batch does not get released,” added Cornelius. He explained that OBP was ISO accredited (International Organisation for Standardisation), a status that was recently reaffirmed. “We keep track of every batch produced and every batch of vaccine that we produce gets tested before it gets packaged. Once it has been packaged another set of quality control tests apply,” said Cornelius.

“It can take three months to get a quality certificate for a batch of vaccine approved. Once the quality certificate has been issued, the vaccine enters a cold chain and it remains in the cold chain until it reaches the farmer. “If we were to release a batch that has failed quality control we will lose our ISO accreditation.”

Clone 13
Cornelius also referred to the controversy around the Clone 13 vaccine for RVF which farmers allege has failed. He implied that the fault did not lie with OBP or the quality of the vaccine, but rather with the distribution companies or with farmers who did not administer the vaccine correctly.

But by saying this he contradicted the findings of a study by Prof Leon Prozesky, head of the pathology department at the University of Pretoria’s Veterinary Faculty. During an outbreak of RVF in 2010/2011, 25 farmers from the Graaff-Reinet and Aberdeen districts lost about 40 000 sheep to RVF after the sheep had been vaccinated using the Clone 13 vaccine.

Prozesky did a study late last year on behalf of OBP to determine the reason for these deaths after OBP received many complaints about the vaccine. He found that improper vaccination by farmers could not explain the heavy losses experienced in the districts. Some reasons for the repeated failure of the vaccine could be re-assortment between the wild virus and the vaccine virus or that the animals had not built up sufficient immunity to withstand such a high level of infection as was prevalent during the outbreak, Prozesky found.