Tensions have flared over the use of the Hendra vaccine.
Tensions have flared over the use of the Hendra vaccine. Iain Curry

Hendra vaccine developers dismiss accusation of 'bullying'

DEVELOPERS of the Hendra vaccine have been accused by a state MP of "bullying" to sell their product, even though he helped prepare a report confirming the vaccine's effectiveness.

The committee inquiry into Hendra virus EquiVac vaccine and its use by veterinary surgeons in Queensland was first tabled in October last year, and was discussed further in State Parliament on Thursday.

It recommended that the vaccine should not be made mandatory, but vets should also maintain the right to refuse treatment to unvaccinated horses, effectively maintaining the current situation.

Yet under the protection of parliamentary privilege on Thursday, Mirani MP Jim Pearce criticised the attitudes of both vets and the vaccine's marketers Zoetis towards the virus.

Firstly he claimed vets were the "worst offenders" for not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), full body suits designed to stop humans coming into contact with the virus when treating a horse.

He then went on to state that he saw it as an example of a drug prepared in haste, not properly tested and it's potential consequences to animals "simply underestimated".

"Another thing that stood out to me and concerned me greatly was that it appeared to be driven by the dollar," Mr Pearce said in parliament.

"Zoetis, the manufacturer of the vaccine, was encouraging vets to not attend to a horse if it had not been vaccinated.

"As far as I am concerned, that is bullying to sell a product to make a profit."

No evidence of this was provided in the committee report.

While Mr Pearce did not sit on the Agriculture and Environment Committee that investigated the issue, he took a special interest and attended the seven public hearings.

However, a Zoetis spokesperson said Mr Pearce's statements do not reflect the findings of the scientific community or the views of Australia's independent regulators.

"The inquiry Mr Pearce helped to establish ultimately recommended vaccination of horses because the vaccine is safe and effective," he said.

"It has passed every test and has proved its value to horses, owners, equine industries and the community over the past four years. Veterinarians are the best people to determine how to treat horses." 

Since Hendra first emerged in 1994, in the Brisbane suburb on Hendra, it has killed 77 out of 97 horses it infected.

It could also be caught by humans in close contact with infected horses, and has killed four out of the seven people infected.

However, in 2010 Pfizer Animals Health, now called Zoetis, began working on a Hendra virus vaccine.

Years of research into a vaccine had already been carried out by Australian and US agencies; one was even prompted after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks as it is closely related to the 'nipah' virus - a potential biological weapons risk.

Finally in 2012 the EquiVac Hev vaccine was released, to prevent Hendra in horses.

It is now "single most effective way of reducing the risk of Hendra virus infection in horses", according to the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

For this reason, many vets refuse to treat any horse that has not received the vaccine, and unvaccinated horses also find it difficult to compete in events.

This can stem from insurance rules, or because vets will only work events if the participating horses are vaccinated.

Yet concerns have been raised about the potential side-effects of the vaccine and the way the vaccine was developed.

From the 440,438 doses of the vaccine administered to March 31, 2016, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Association classified seven horse deaths as 'possibly' related to the vaccine.

No deaths were classified as 'probably' related to the vaccine.

But in a submission to the inquiry, Equestrian Queensland stated "seven horse deaths from reactions to a vaccine against a virus that infects approximately three horses a year is excessive and unacceptable".

The committee's report noted that in contrast to the statistics collected by the APVMA and Zoetis, horse owners who participated in the inquiry described adverse reactions as "commonplace".

"Despite these statics, many horse owners are adamant that adverse reactions to the vaccine are more prevalent and under-reported (by vets to Zoetis to APVMA, and then reported by APVMA), and that vets and Zoetis have clear vested interests in not reporting adverse reactions," the report stated.

While the developers of the vaccine won awards and met all required guidelines, the report noted "the path to registration of the vaccine was atypical and this may have led some people to question if the vaccine was thoroughly tested prior to being released."

Some horse owners also argued that further testing of the vaccine is warranted on a wider range of horse breeds with differing genetic backgrounds and that veterinarians have not consistently provided them the manufacturer's warnings and advice provided with the vaccine.

The report also stated that some veterinarians have deviated from the manufacturer's guidelines and administered the vaccine together with other medicines and to sick horses.

Other recommendations from the committee report included:

  • Improving time frames for exclusion testing
  • Temperature indicators for vaccine packs
  • Advising owners of vaccine information and 'off label' risks
  • Raising awareness of processes for self-reporting adverse reactions to the Hendra vaccine
  • Revision of Biosecurity Queensland guidelines and Workplace Health and Safety guidelines for both low-risk and high-risk treatments
  • Equine industry representatives on the Hendra Working Group
  • Promoting Hendra vaccinations of horses.

A final response to the report will be provided to the Legislative Assembly by April 21, 2017.

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