Even Queen Elizabeth admitted to enduring an annus horribilis – a horrible year – in the early 1990s, so it can happen to the best of us.
Australia’s quarantine service racked up its shocker in 2007. That was when the equine influenza virus escaped from its Eastern Creek quarantine station near Sydney, probably from an infected Japanese stallion.
Australia’s horses had never been exposed to equine influenza and the disease swept up through New South Wales and into southern Queensland. At its peak, 47,000 horses were infected across New South Wales alone.
It was a massive and impressive biosecurity effort that finally eliminated the virus from Australia.
The country then rejoined New Zealand and Iceland as the only nations free of the disease.
I am sure that staff at the headquarters of the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service were gripping their pencils tighter than usual yesterday when Equestrian Australia announced it was interested in hosting the World Equestrian Games in 2022.
If successful, the event could potentially draw up to 1000 horses to Australia’s shores to compete across the eight disciplines showcased at the FEI event.
Naturally, this is exciting news for anyone from this part of the world who traditionally has to cross several oceans to get to the world’s showpiece international equestrian events.
However, I have to say I am surprised that Australia has entered the running.
These are early days, of course. Equestrian Australia has done nothing more submit a non-binding Expression of Interest in relation to the Games. It will now receive the official bid documentation which will enable it to further explore the feasibility of the whole idea.
It says it is eyeing Adelaide and southeast Queensland as potential venues.
One only has to look at the bidding process for the 2018 Games – eventually awarded to Bromont – to realize that this may not be a smooth process. Potential hosts were leaping on and off the FEI carousel at a great rate of knots during that bid process, and we can only hope that it will run better this time.
I am led to believe that authorities in the state of Queensland led a pretty substantial feasibility study, so for Equestrian Australia to formally express interest in the Games might suggest there are some positive indicators.
Good on Australia for putting up its hand, but I’m going to get all pernickety and raise a few of those pesky practical considerations that would go with a WEG bid in this part of the world.
Let’s consider some of the hurdles – and quarantine would surely loom large.
All countries have quarantine requirements, of course, and solutions always seem to have been found for these big events to allow the international movement of the hundreds of high-performance horses involved.
However, if you want to find the one country that is likely to be pretty unyielding on the question of quarantine, it would surely be Australia.
There was a great deal of fallout following the 2007-08 flu outbreak. Containing the disease was enormously expensive – somewhere around $A350 million. Disruption was widespread and the government acknowledged the cost to the racing industry alone was around $A1 billion.
The report by a Commission of Inquiry into the flu outbreak subsequently outlined a litany of failings and shortcomings in the operation of federal quarantine services. A major overhaul of the service and itx protocols followed, with 38 recommendations implemented.
Amid that background, it is hard to imagine much appetite for more permissive quarantine requirements for WEG-bound equines, even given their status as high-health, high-performance horses.
Certainly, under current arrangements, horses in quarantine in Australia could not be ridden, nor their ongoing training accommodated.
Another interesting piece of fallout from the 2007-08 flu outbreak was the federal government’s determination not to have to pay for any future outbreaks.
To that end, representatives of the Australian horse industry signed an agreement with the government in which any federal costs for funding future disease incursions could be recovered by charging a levy on manufactured feeds and wormers.
So, under that scenario, Australian horse owners face the prospect of paying up for years to come should an exotic horse disease get introduced accidentally.
The shortlisting of south-east Queensland by Equestrian Australia was a particular surprise, given that it is a hot-spot for the deadly bat-borne Hendra virus.
Hendra is carried by Australia’s native fruit bats, which can pass it on to horses. People who come into contact with infected bodily fluid from horses can also catch the disease.
Now, to avoid being accused of scaremongering, let’s put this in perspective. The risk is undoubtedly low. Hendra was first identified in 1994 and, since then, there have been 60 confirmed outbreaks in horses resulting in the deaths of 100 animals.
Horses are capable of surviving the infection but they are invariably euthanised to eliminate the risk of disease spread.
Since 1994, seven people have been infected via horses and four of them have died.
Cases in horses usually occur near the roosts of fruit bats, so it is arguably possible to ensure WEG venues and horse accommodation are well away from bat populations and the fruiting trees that attract them. However, what complicates the question is the issue of vaccination.
A horse vaccine targeting the Hendra virus was released in 2012 and, since then, more than 415,000 doses have been given to horses around Australia.
Indeed, there is a requirement for horses attending competitions in Hendra risk areas to be vaccinated against the disease.
The Queensland Government’s Agriculture and Environment Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the vaccine, including an investigation of claims by some owners of adverse reactions in horses after receiving it.
The developers and marketers of the vaccine say they are happy with the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, but the social-media barometer clearly points to some level of concern in the horse community.
The reality, as it stands today, is that nearly all of the owners of competition horses in southern Australia – a broad region that has never recorded a case of Hendra – are unlikely to vaccinate their horses and venture into northeastern New South Wales or southeastern Queensland to compete. It’s much easier – and cheaper – to compete on their home turf.
I don’t doubt that arrangements could be made that removed the need for vaccination for WEG horses, but we then return to the thorny question of what biosecurity and quarantine arrangements the federal government might be prepared to accept in order for Australia to host the event. I don’t envisage the federal government being too big on the question of compromise.
Of course, the whole Hendra question goes away if WEG is held further south, in Adelaide. However, I am led to believe that existing competition infrastructure is limited and considerable investment would be necessary.
The last WEG, held in Normandy, France, in 2014, managed to turn a profit, but from what I can gather the event isn’t usually a money-spinner. It seems clear that the best chances of making money – or breaking even – would involve staging the event in Europe, where a majority of competitors are based and a vast potential audience is right on the doorstep.
The only time the Games have been held outside Europe thus far was in 2010, when Lexington, Kentucky, played host. The key sponsor, Alltech, increased its financial support amid a backdrop of lower-than-expected ticket sales.
Organisers of WEG normally have to find someone to underwrite any losses, and this can be a real challenge.
WEG is, by any definition, a huge deal. To give some idea of the scale, organizers of the 2018 Bromont Games in Canada are anticipating an operating budget of about $C72 million, with a further $C20 million in infrastructure required to stage the Games. Bromont will be running the Games using some of the equestrian facilities built for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. One imagines that Australia’s infrastructure spend would have to be considerably higher.
Australia has plenty of time to look at the issues and seek solutions, but I get the sense it won’t be easy.
Brazil, with several worrying infections, including equine piroplasmosis and glanders, has created a biosecurity corridor for the upcoming Olympics from Rio de Janiero’s airport to the equestrian venue, which is itself a biosecurity zone. I guess that shows what is possible. But it must be borne in mind that the biosecurity arrangements in Brazil are more about keeping the arriving horses free from endemic local infections, than introducing new diseases to the region.
Make no mistake. I would delighted to leap on an Airbus and take the three-hour flight across the Tasman Sea to attend WEG, contributing my share of tourist dollars to Australia’s economy.
Perhaps Australia can pull it off, but no-one should underestimate the challenges.
Equestrian Australia may choose to release the feasibility study when the time is right, which may well cast light on these issues and indicate whether any viable solutions exist. But, for now, I wouldn’t be booking an Adelaide or Queensland hotel anytime soon.