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“We need to do this together because it’s not much worth to have rules if they are not followed” – FEI Veterinary Director Göran Åkerström

Wednesday, 31 March 2021
EHV-1 (neurological form)

Photo © FEI/Richard Juilliart “It’s absolutely critical that everyone takes their responsibility for biosecurity and complies with the regulations. Regardless of what role you have, this is absolute key for the future,” FEI Veterinary Director Göran Åkerström said during yesterday's online press conference. Photo © FEI/Richard Juilliart.

 

Text © World of Showjumping

 


 

“We can never eradicate EHV as it is endemic, and in so many countries around the world, but we clearly need to ensure that this type of outbreak never happens again and that any future outbreaks are contained before they can cause the same type of devastating effects that we have seen in this one,” said FEI Veterinary Director Göran Åkerström as he spoke to the press on Tuesday afternoon, just after the FEI had announced their new Return to Competition measures. These extensive protocols aim to safely bring the sport back in mainland Europe when a six-week lockdown – caused by the EHV-1 outbreak that originated at the Valencia Spring Tour in Spain – finally comes to an end in mid-April. 

The FEI has presented a set of thorough and tough measures to organisers and riders alike, and Åkerström emphasised how important it is that everyone involved in the sport takes their part of the responsibility when the competitions can resume next month. “Actually, we already have very comprehensive regulations in place on this – and comprehensive education,” Åkerström pointed out – a reference to the many biosecurity requirements that can be found in the FEI Veterinary Regulations. "Now – for this short period – it is more a matter of compliance and that everyone buys into this. We need to do this together because it’s not much worth to have rules if they are not followed, so that is absolutely key."

“The measures that we are launching today, focus on six key areas: Pre-event venue preparations by organisers; athlete pre-event preparations; examination on arrival; onsite at event venue; departure from events; and jurisdiction – which is absolute key for us to be efficient in the management of an outbreak,” Åkerström continued. “The combination of these six elements will provide an enhanced level of protection that will remain in place during the period immediately after an outbreak when we all need to be on high alert. These measures will be in place until the 30th of May and if needed we will of course also extend them.”

“The Return to Competition protocols are primarily about preventive measures that protect against outbreaks and infectious diseases, but also in case of an outbreak there must be traceability and provision in place to manage and shut down,” Åkerström said. “We cannot do this on our own, we need a community effort,” he added – pointing out how everyone needs to collaborate to fully endorse and implement the measures into their respective areas of responsibility. 

Positive development in identifying the strain of the virus

Åkerström could also present a positive development in the work with identifying the strain of the virus that so far has brought the FEI’s official number of equine fatalities to eighteen. “The good news is that the Valencia strain of the virus has been identified as a A2254/N752 genotype,” Åkerström said. “It is a common virus that circulates in Europe and is more common than the G2254E/752 genotype that is often associated with neurological disease. The good thing now is that we can really identify those horses that are connected to Valencia should there be any further outbreaks.”

“If you look at this strain that we have detected in this case, it is a common strain – it normally gives respiratory clinical signs,” Åkerström explained. “In Valencia, it got much, much worse and why exactly is something we are looking closely into. One of the members in the Epidemiology Group was on site for almost a week and she has already gathered a lot of information on that part. We will also gather the vaccination data of horses and we are looking into the particular strains; right now, there is on-going gene sequencing in a Belgian lab. That will hopefully reveal if there are details in this particular strain that we may not have been previously aware of. When it comes to the G-strain – that normally is more associated with the neurological disease – it is not the one that we have seen in this outbreak – so the effects of that in relation to vaccinations, to future possible outbreaks and so on is very difficult to have an advised view on right now. The research will help us with that later, but right now is too early in the process.”

About the apparent aggressiveness of the Valencia strain, Åkerström explained that this is being carefully looked into. “This strain is normally not associated with this severe level of disease, so it is clearly something that has to do with the environment as well – and we are looking into it,” he said. 

Not straightforward to implement mandatory vaccination

When it comes to vaccinating against EHV-1, Åkerström was clear in his opinion: This is not as straightforward as it might seem. “It’s been a lot of discussion about vaccinations,” Åkerström said. “Three years ago, we looked carefully into vaccines and whether we should make it mandatory against EHV-1 but there were no vaccines available at that time which protected against the neurological form and this is actually still the case. Only when a vaccine is produced effectively protecting against the neurological form, will we consider having mandatory vaccination.”

“So, how could a vaccine protect?” Åkerström continued. “One way would ideally be a vaccine that would protect directly against the neurological form, but it’s not available. Another version is that you vaccinate and achieve herd immunity, that means that more or less all horses need to be vaccinated. In order to do that we need enough vaccines and those horses need to be checked in a proper way also at their own establishments or home stables in order for it to be protective,” Åkerström explained. “What we also have seen in Valencia is that vaccinated horses have been very sick and a number of them have died. Although fully vaccinated, they have still suffered tremendously. So, this is something that is not straightforward to implement. We are clearly looking into it as a future option, but it’s not for now.”

“Currently – sorry to say – there are no really good vaccines against EHV. Hopefully this new project will take us to that part – and that would of course be a game changer,” Åkerström added. 

“Right now, our Epidemiology Group is checking the availability and licensing of the current vaccines. We are in discussions with the pharmaceutical industry about future vaccines – also in regards of availability,” Åkerström continued. “We only have two countries in the EU that have licensed vaccines against EHV-1 and that makes the availability very unreliable. Of course, everyone must have access to a vaccine if we are to make it mandatory.” 

“One needs to be very aware that it’s quite a challenging legal item,” Åkerström pointed out. “For example, Portugal is one of the countries in Europe that actually has limitations on what kind of vaccinations you can give to animals. Without a legislative change in a country like Portugal they could not vaccinate the horses without quite some problems so there are many obstacles to move – or jump over – before we are able to go in that direction. But rest assure, we are looking into all options.”

Absolutely critical that everyone takes their responsibility for biosecurity

A thorough investigation into the circumstances of the EHV-1 outbreak is another step the FEI will be taking. “In the investigation that will be launched, we will also look into setting up a working group for the future – to see if there is anything else we can do,” Åkerström explained. “It is also important that we allow the science to determine all the elements of this outbreak, because in Europe the scope of it has been unique – so it’s something that we need to learn a lot from. We are in that process right now, together with some of the best scientists in the world.”

As for now, Åkerström pointed towards the Return to Competition measures as an important tool in preventing further outbreaks. “It’s absolutely critical that everyone takes their responsibility for biosecurity and complies with the regulations. Regardless of what role you have, this is absolute key for the future,” was the clear message of the FEI Veterinary Director. 

 

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