Just over two weeks after trans-Tasman equine flights resumed following a COVID-19-enforced shutdown, exports from New Zealand to Australia have been suspended indefinitely yet again, this time due to a possible case of equine piroplasmosis.
On May 20, New Zealand’s Ministry of Primary Industries informed exporters that shipments to Australia had been suspended with immediate effect.
A flight Tuesday night was prevented from leaving the country, and another shipment, scheduled for Friday night, is also expected to be held over as the department negotiates alternative arrangements with their Australian counterparts, the Department of Agriculture.
Friday’s flight, though, was still scheduled to depart as of Wednesday night; a number of owners with horses set for that shipment had not been informed about any potential delay.
Equine piroplasmosis has never been identified in New Zealand before, but MPI director for animal health and welfare Chris Rodwell confirmed that a mare tested positive to equine piroplasmosis in a pre-export blood test. The mare had arrived in New Zealand last year from a European Union country that is known to harbor the tick-borne disease.
Further testing is expected to confirm that the horse is infected with Theileria equi, one of two known parasites to transmit equine piroplasmosis.
“Further blood tests have been taken from the mare, and we expect confirmation of whether the horse is negative or positive for the disease by the end of this week,” Rodwell told ANZ Bloodstock News. “Theileria equi is a blood disease that causes anemia and is spread from animal to animal by ticks. The horse in question was imported to New Zealand from the EU early last year for breeding. No signs of disease in the animal have been reported in its time here.”
While the disease cannot be passed from horse to horse without the ticks known to transmit the parasite—with those tick species not found in New Zealand—most veterinary agreements with other countries require that equine piroplasmosis has not been present in the exporting country for a certain period of time.
For Australia, the requirement is three years—meaning that, under the current certification process, trans-Tasman exports would be banned until 2023.
While other arrangements are likely to be determined as a matter of urgency, it is a blow to the beleaguered New Zealand industry at a time when it is already under tremendous pressure. Even a temporary ban has the potential to upset spring preparations and breeding plans for New Zealand-based mares in Australia.
On Wednesday night, MPI was moving to reassure horse owners that they were working as fast as possible with an aim to find a quick solution.
“MPI is aware this situation may cause some concern to those in the equine sector, and work is underway to resolve things as quickly as possible to ensure ongoing horse exports are not interrupted,” Rodwell said. “Some countries, including Australia, that import horses from New Zealand require certification that New Zealand is free of Theileria equi. This current suspect test result has meant that MPI cannot currently provide that assurance of country-freedom status. The ministry’s market access specialists are working with Australian authorities to explore alternative assurance options to allow exports to continue.”
Biosecurity New Zealand has already started an investigation to confirm that it is an isolated case of equine piroplasmosis, but questions remain as to how a case could not only have occurred in New Zealand but how it could have gone undetected for so long.
“The horse met MPI’s importing requirements in that it had received a negative test for Theileria equi within 30 days of shipment,” Rodwell said. “Before shipment, horses are quarantined and treated to remove any ticks that may be present. They are also further inspected and quarantined on arrival.”
According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, either of the two parasites that carry equine piroplasmosis—Babesia caballi and Theileria equi—can be found on most continents, including much of Europe.
The Theileria equi parasite has also been reported in Australia in the past; the most recent case was an outbreak in the Southern Highlands region of New South Wales in 1976, but it did not take hold, and Australia is now considered to be free of equine piroplasmosis.
The official zoosanitary certificate, which must be certified prior to export to Australia, states that New Zealand must have been free of 16 diseases for a three-year period prior to export; equine piroplasmosis is on that list, along with the likes of African horse sickness, equine influenza, and glanders.
MPI’s Dr. Emma Passmore stated in an email to exporters: “The export certificate for horses traveling to Australia, either for transit or permanent import, requires MPI to certify that no clinical, epidemiological, or other evidence of equine piroplasmosis has occurred in New Zealand within the three-year period immediately prior to export. This can no longer be certified, and exports to or via Australia are suspended with immediate effect.”
While Australia is the biggest market to be affected and also has notoriously strict quarantine laws, exports to other countries will also be potentially compromised. Macau requires the exporting country to have been free of equine piroplasmosis for two years, and Singapore asks for extra tests and treatments to be completed if the country has not been free from equine piroplasmosis for 12 months.
The United States also requires that the country has been free of equine piroplasmosis for 12 months. Japan has no time frame but also requires a piroplasmosis-free environment.
However, Hong Kong’s requirements are less stringent, simply requiring a horse not to have completed its pre-export quarantine on premises where equine piroplasmosis has occurred in the 60 days prior to export.
Exporters on Wednesday night were digesting the ban and the potential implications that may follow if it is prolonged beyond the next couple of weeks. Most suggested that the immediate suspension of exports to Australia was an unfortunate but required step.
“This is very disappointing news, but the suspension is totally necessary at this time,” Equine International Airfreight managing director Cameron Croucher said. “Just as flights were starting to operate across the Tasman after the COVID-19 shutdowns, outcomes of this nature will be very disappointing to owners and trainers who now face a further delay in relocating their bloodstock.
“I’m sure that both government departments in New Zealand and Australia will work very hard to find a quick solution to resume services once confirmatory testing is completed. Also, a proper investigation is needed into how this has been allowed to occur, which could have a massive impact on the New Zealand Thoroughbred industry if the suspension is prolonged, especially leading into the Southern Hemisphere breeding season.”
In the past week, a number of New Zealand horses have been confirmed as relocating to Australia, and Cambridge Stud last week announced that a number of its fillies would join the Te Akau assault on the Melbourne spring. In addition, almost 200 mares crossed the Tasman from New Zealand for breeding purposes in 2019, with a similar number expected this year.