Local solutions for animal health

Minister of science and technology Derek Hanekom said South Africa is not close to exploiting the full potential of its livestock.

Maintaining South Africa’s animal health status is important if the agricultural sector is to sustain its ability to export. Numerous indigenous and exotic diseases which commonly attack livestock in South Africa can only be controlled through vaccination.

Disease control strategies in the pork industry, particularly for diseases such as African swine fever, are important for the sector’s economic success.
(Images: Wilma den Hartigh)       

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Wilma den Hartigh

South Africa’s livestock sector is to receive a significant boost with the launch of the Tshwane Animal Health Cluster, an initiative of the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) to develop local solutions for animal diseases.

The initiative will bring together the best minds, skills and expertise in the field of animal health in the Gauteng province to develop new products and services for South Africa’s livestock industry.

The participating institutions include the Agricultural Research Council, National Research Foundation, University of Pretoria, Onderstepoort Biological Products and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

The new project aims to revitalise animal vaccine manufacturing to address diseases of strategic and economic importance in South Africa, find solutions to animal production diseases through technology and innovation, and contribute towards developing skills and expertise in the animal health field.

Solutions for disease outbreaks

The cluster is good news for the livestock industry’s fight against outbreaks such as foot and mouth disease (FMD), a contagious viral infection that affects cloven hoofed animals, and the African horse sickness virus.

Every year, such epidemics cost the industry millions of rands in lost revenue and production, affecting the livelihoods of both commercial and small scale farmers.

“Through the establishment of the animal health cluster, we declare our unequivocal intention to make the area of animal vaccine development a global leader on behalf of our nation,” said TIA’s CEO Simphiwe Duma.

The TIA is a project of the Department of Science and Technology, which supports technological innovation across all sectors of the economy.

Its ultimate goal is to use South Africa’s science and technology base to develop new industries, create sustainable jobs and help diversify the economy from commodity exports towards knowledge-based industries equipped to address modern global challenges.

A proactive response to disease management

Speaking at the launch, Duma explained that maintaining South Africa’s animal health status is important if the agricultural sector is to sustain its ability to export and prevent the loss of human and animal life.

Duma said South Africa is currently in the grip of possibly the biggest FMD outbreak yet, and all exports of cloven hoofed animals and their products which have not been treated to deactivate the virus have been suspended, following the outbreak in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

An outbreak of avian influenza recently resulted in the termination of ostrich exports, while African horse sickness is having a devastating impact on the horse industry.

This is why the health cluster is so important, as it will create an enabling environment for the development and commercialisation of safe, affordable and effective animal health products for the livestock industry.

Creating a thriving livestock sector

In his official address, minister of science and technology Derek Hanekom said South Africa is not close to exploiting the full potential of its livestock.

“We have to develop a greater appreciation for the role of livestock in the country,” Hanekom said, adding that collaboration between the participating organisations is critical for animal health and a successful agricultural industry.

“The agricultural sector is underappreciated in South Africa, but the value of the sector can never be underrated. It provides employment and food security,” he said.

“Supporting livestock and animal health is critical and the role of productive animals in South Africa is important.”

Animal health and the economy

According to Duma the market potential for the animal health industry is estimated between R5-billion (US$580-million) and R6-billion ($696-million), and there is also great value in vaccines.

“South Africa has been developing veterinary vaccines for over 100 years, especially in the area of insect-borne diseases,” he said.

The first vaccine for rinderpest played an important role in eradicating the disease in Africa.

Caiphus Ramoroka, head of the TIA’s agri-biotech sector, explained that the development of the rinderpest vaccine – with the help of veterinarian professionals through global partnerships – demonstrates the value of scientific collaboration.

According to the South African Animal Health Association, the country’s animal health market generated revenues of R1.63-billion ($190-million) in 2009, at an average treatment coverage rate of about 35%, and vaccines contributed R440-million ($51-million).

“Evidently, animal health is an unsung contributor to our country’s economy and wellbeing,” he said.

New generation vaccines

During a panel discussion on animal health at the event, Prof Robert Bragg, from the faculty of natural and agricultural sciences at the University of the Free State, spoke about new possibilities in vaccine development.

“Advances in vaccine development is the new frontier,” Bragg said. “Vaccination is the prime disease control method but all the easy vaccines have been made, this is why we need to look at a new generation of vaccines.”

He believes that South Africa’s research community should also consider the use of nanotechnology, which can play a vital role in increasing the potency of drugs.

“This is a very interesting time to be involved in science. Technology is developing at an exponential rate,” he says.

However, he warns that one of biggest challenges is implementation. “Technology promises much, but this is all on paper. Technology has to prove itself.”

Technology must be accessible and relevant

Dr Johan van Rensburg, group GM for Afrivet, said developing technology such as new vaccines and drugs that are accessible to all farmers should be a priority for researchers.

He explained that South Africa is in a unique position as the country’s livestock population is in the hands of both small scale and commercial farmers.

This poses a challenge in terms of access to new technology, particularly for the small scale sector.

“Small scale farmers are major players and can benefit from such technology, but it is important that they also receive training in how to apply high technology vaccines,” Van Rensburg says.

He emphasised the importance of finding animal health remedies suitable for South African conditions. “For example, we need to develop something that can lie in the sun,” he explained.

The commercial livestock sector also needs a greater focus on developing technologies focused on improving production.

“Bringing fantastic technology to the market, training farmers and enabling access to technology can help the livestock sector in South Africa to thrive.”