GENEVA — A severe outbreak of equine herpes could disrupt preparations for the Tokyo Olympics, the International Equestrian Federation said Thursday.
The virus, which has shut down most competitions in Europe this month, is linked to the death of seven horses in Spain and Germany. The rare neurological form of the virus was first seen at a jumping venue in Valencia two weeks ago.
The other Olympic disciplines of eventing and dressage have also been affected with the FEI stopping nearly all international events in Europe until at least March 28.
“In equestrian sports in Europe, we have seen nothing on this scale before in regards of neurological signs,” FEI veterinary director Göran Åkerström said in an interview.
Horses are suffering from breathing problems and can quickly become agitated and unbalanced. In the most dangerous cases, they are unable to stand.
“All this (can happen) within a couple of hours and that is very, very rare,” Åkerström said. “For the horses, it is certainly very distressing.”
The FEI official said protecting the health of horses would drive decisions rather than the demands of competitions.
Equestrian medal events at the Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to start on July 24, and some horses and riders need to prepare for and score “confirmation results” by a June deadline.
“This was certainly a concern when we looked into the various options we had to minimize the further spread of this outbreak,” Åkerström said.
The FEI’s response has been helped by learning from a smaller virus outbreak in Norway in 2019.
“Our database, in combination with the (new) regulation, made us able to trace and block 750 horses within 48 hours,” the Swedish official said.
Better hygiene awareness during the COVID-19 pandemic also helped. There are similarities with equine herpes spreading via droplets and contact.
“Just like COVID, it is also spread by people transmitting through their hands and so on, and equipment,” Åkerström said.
The FEI is hoping to have return-to-competition measures in place for March 29.