Sponsorship row over Zoetis deal erupts at Equestrian Australia
A $10m commercial arrangement between a key Olympic sport and a global pharmaceutical company, announced on Easter Thursday and ended less than two weeks later, making it arguably the shortest lived sponsorship in Australian sport.
Equestrian Australia announced on Wednesday it had severed the lucrative contract with Zoetis, the world’s largest producer of medicines for pets and livestock, including the vaccine for the deadly Hendra virus, following widespread opposition from its membership, as well as four of the six state equestrian branches.
A number of EA members have launched a $53m class action in the Federal Court against Zoetis for the sometimes debilitating or fatal side effects of the Hendra virus vaccine.
The legal action alleges that Zoetis failed to properly trial and test its Equivac HeV (Hendra) vaccine before it was administered to horses Australia.
EA chair Judy Fasher said in a statement, "Equestrian Australia is a service organisation for our sport, our shareholders and our members. In response to feedback from members, EA and Zoetis have mutually agreed to end the sponsorship agreement with immediate effect."
The state branches of Equestrian NSW, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia all issued public statements over the Easter weekend, distancing themselves from the commercial alignment, while vehement opposition was launched on social media. However, while the Hendra virus is confined to northern NSW and Queensland, the use of the vaccine has strong supporters in other states who point out the deadly disease kills humans, with vets being the most common fatalities.
EA made the vaccine mandatory for all competition horses following the outbreak of the Hendra virus in 2012, while the racing industry and other horse sports took a more cautious position.
Asked whether the vaccine been “rushed”, as EA’s critics maintain, a spokesperson said, “EA are not in a position to comment on the public release of the vaccination and its wide spread use. However, as a reference point, in 2016 there was a Queensland parliamentary investigation into the safety and administration of the Hendra vaccine and additionally to this, a study by Racing Queensland, that released its findings in 2018.”
The Queensland study, believed to be the first in the world on vaccination against the Hendra virus, confirmed it did not affect the racing performance of thoroughbred horses.
In the March 29 press release announcing the sponsorship, Zoetis Equine Business Unit Director Stephanie Armstrong said, “By leveraging our strong heritage and focus on education, this partnership represents a fantastic opportunity to work more closely with the EA community to drive towards our shared vision of optimum horse care.”
Some of EA’s 15,000 members suspect the severance of the Zoetis sponsorship, is linked to the $53m class action, launched on March 20, with EA and ENSW listed as intermediaries.
EA faces further legal challenges with the NSW coroner due to look into the deaths of two young riders killed competing in 2016.
Maggie Dawkins, parent of a FEI 2 star rider, wife of former Keating Government Treasurer, John Dawkins and volunteer, said, “I shall call for an independent inquiry into the structure and governance of EA in my submission to the coronial inquest.
“I have serious concerns for the safety and welfare of young riders and their horses in a sport that relies upon Commonwealth government funding.”