Out of disaster, world-class achievement.
In 1986, disease of devastating scale swept through South Africa. Within two years it had destroyed over half of the country's livestock population and 95% of cattle herds. Wildlife was not spared, and it took many years for the decimated herds of free roaming antelope and buffalo to regenerate.
The name of the disease is rinderpest. It was the worst animal disease pandemic South Africa has experienced - before or since.
But the disaster had one positive and lasting benefit: rinderpest was the impetus which stimulated the beginning of professionally based veterinary research in South Africa. It led in 1908 to the establishment of the Onderstepoort Veterinary Research Institute, which became a national centre for the investigation, diagnosis and prevention of the spread of animal diseases. It brought fame, a British knighthood and a nation's lasting gratitude to its founder and pioneer in the early battles against animal disease, Sir Arnold Theiler.
Another famous veterinary scientist from Onderstepoort was Dr. Max Sterne (1905 - 1997). On taking up a post at the Veterinary Research Institute, he was given the task of producing the Pasteur anthrax vaccine strain. Sterne realised the need for an improved vaccine and obtained astounding results. His achievement of producing an anthrax mutant by inducing the loss of the cell wall was met with disbelief. He subsequently proved that his mutant strain was both safe and protective in livestock. Sterne never received the appropriate recognition for his achievement and the strain which is now known as 34F2 (Sterne strain), was freely handed out to laboratories around the world. The vaccine strain has made a major contribution to the control or eradication of anthrax in many countries. He also developed the method used currently for the culture of botulism vaccine.
In the decades following Theiler, the name “Onderstepoort” was to become a major role player in the research, development and manufacture of vaccines to combat the many animal diseases which plague Africa. A veterinary facility of education, under the University of Pretoria, was established and added to the fame of Onderstepoort.
In 1968 a dedicated vaccine production facility was established and in 1992 Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP) and Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute were separated and Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute became one of the research institutes of the Agricultural Research Council.
Today OBP, as a fully corporatised entity operates as a successful, commercially-driven enterprise whose achievements in research and product development have won international recognition.
Onderstepoort Biological Products has a simple and overriding corporate mission: to harness science to help build a healthier and more commercially successful agricultural livestock population. Within the framework of that strategy it has two chief roles:
To produce quality vaccines for the prevention and treatment of livestock diseases.
To exploit and develop ongoing research into the production of new and advanced vaccines for the benefit of agriculture here and abroad.
Over the years, many other diseases have been largely eradicated or brought under control. But the battle is never completely won, and with a century of tradition and achievement behind it, OBP is today better equipped than ever to serve the needs of South Africa, its continental neighbours - and a wider world.