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Funding constraints have hobbled Agriculture Research Council

The council, whose mandate is to conduct research to support local agriculture, has been under financial pressure for years. CEO Shadrack Moephuli said its current budget is at the same level it was in 2014-2015.

The challenges it faces with its vaccine manufacturing ambitions are just one example of how local science is taking strain in the current fiscal climate, which has seen budget cuts instituted at a host of funding agencies.

"We want to re-establish foot and mouth vaccine production in SA, but the government has not come to the party," Moephuli said on Thursday.

SA currently buys foot and mouth vaccine from the Botswana Vaccine Institute at €20 a dose, and purchases at least 300,000 doses every six months, he said.

"That is a huge expenditure. If the government were to invest it in a vaccine manufacturing facility, we could sell it to neighbouring states and generate an additional income stream," said Moephuli.

Vaccination is vital for protecting the herds of red-meat producers and for controlling outbreaks. It is particularly important for exporters.

A study conducted by the Red Meat Producers’ Organisation in 2017 found that if the country lost its foot and mouth disease-free status, the economy would lose about R6bn a year. SA lost its foot and mouth disease-free status in 2011 after an outbreak and only regained it in 2014, at a cost of R4bn to the economy, according to the organisation.

The council had secured R120m towards establishing a facility for manufacturing foot and mouth disease vaccines, but faced a funding shortfall of R400m, said Moephuli.

It also hit a stumbling block with its heartwater vaccine, which protects cattle and other ruminants from the tick-borne bacteria Ehrlichia ruminantium. The vaccine, which is the first novel animal shot developed in SA since 1994, was ready to go into clinical trials 18 months ago, but the council had to halt its plans due to budget cuts.

"Budget cuts like this mean scientists have to stop working on projects and resign," he said.

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