Glanders in horses: biosecurity precautions taken at the 2016 Rio Olympics

 by Laura Donnellan[1]



The equestrian events at the Summer Olympics, which took place at Deodoro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in August 2016, took place in conditions described as resembling “a cross between Fort Knox and a sterile surgery[2].


The reason behind such secure measures was the fear of the spread of disease among equids, most notably glanders. Glanders is an ancient disease that has been eradicated in the developed world, but is still present in a number of South American countries and other developing countries, including India. Whilst the threat of the Zika virus resulted in a number of high profile athletes withdrawing from the Games, no horses were withdrawn. This may be due to the fact that there were assurances given that the Deodoro equestrian centre was free from glanders and no horses had resided in the centre for months preceding the equestrian events as a precautionary measure. Leaving animal welfare issues aside, horses would have been withdrawn had glanders posed a real risk. Horses competing at elite level can be worth between approximately € 300,000 and € 10.6 million.[3]


This article discusses the factors leading to the increase in biosecurity at the Deodoro equestrian centre. It examines the responses of the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), the World governing Body of Equestrianism, and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).


The article begins with a brief look at the glanders disease and its origins.



Glanders and its origins


Glanders is an ancient disease, which mainly affects single hooved animals, in particular, horses, mules and donkeys. Its origins can be traced back to Hippocrates, who in around 425 BC, recorded the clinical signs of the disease.[4] Aristotle (384-322 BC), some one hundred years later, referred to the disease in relation to donkeys as “melis”.[5] The association of glanders with warfare can be traced back to the Fourth Century AD, as a military veterinarian in the army of Constantine the Great is reported to have made reference to both glanders and farcy.[6] In the Fifth Century AD, Vegetius, a military historian, referred to the disease as “malleus” (the Latin for hammer) in order to describe the “force at with which the disease strikes horses”.[7] Vegetius recognised the highly contagious nature of the disease and suggested the segregation of infected horses from non-infected horses.[8]


Glanders continued to be associated with warfare as the disease infected horses during the Crusades and other military operations.[9] During the reign of King Louis XV, the first veterinary school was established in 1761 in Lyon, in order to investigate the causes of glanders in the hope of finding a cure in order to protect French army horses.[10] Despite the efforts of King Louis XV, glanders continued to infect horses. During the Great War, a total of 58,843 French army horses were reported to be infected with the disease.[11] Germany, on the other hand, viewed glanders as an important bioweapon, as it used the disease to infect the horses and other livestock of its allies.[12] In a similar vein, during World War II, Japan used glanders to infect horses, civilians and prisoners of war in a base at Pin Fan in China.[13] It was also reported that the former Soviet Union used glanders as a bioweapon against its opponents in Afghanistan in the period of 1982 to 1984.[14] Glanders “is regarded as one of the main eight potential agents of bioterror (together with anthrax, botulism, cholera, plague, Q fever, smallpox and tularaemia)”.[15]


By the early Twentieth Century, glanders had been eradicated from the developed world. The industrial revolution resulted in automation and, as a result, the horse was no longer used for transport and its use in the war effort had as a result been greatly diminished and trade restrictions had reduced the spread of the disease.[16] Glanders is a rare disease in the developed world; however, it is still active in South America, North Africa, parts of Asia and the Middle East.[17] However, according to Kettle and Wernery, glanders “is considered endemic in Iraq, Pakistan, India, Mongolia and parts of Brazil”.[18]


Glanders is caused by the bacterium Burkholderia mallei. As noted above, it is a highly contagious disease that affects horses, mules and donkeys.[19] Glanders is also referred to as a zoonotic disease, one which can be transmitted from animals to humans. It causes lung lesions and ulceration of mucous membranes of the respiratory tract.[20] In animals, with an acute form of glanders, the symptoms include coughing and fever followed by septicaemia, and death ensues within days.[21] The acute form of the disease is more common among donkeys and mules. In the chronic form of the disease, nodules may form on the skin and in the horse’s nasal passages, resulting in ulceration. The chronic form of glanders is more prevalent in horses.[22] While death is not imminent and the horse may live for a few months and even years, this means that horses suffering from chronic glanders act as carriers and will pass on the infection to other horses.[23] The disease seems to thrive in wet or humid environments and can live up to a year in the environment.[24]


There is no vaccine available for animals who have contracted glanders. Animals that test positive for the disease must be euthanised (except in situations where the animals are in an endemic area where segregation of susceptible animals is advised) and the affected premises must be quarantined, sterilised and the euthanised animals must either be buried or burned.[25] The disease may also be asymptomatic and symptoms including lesions in the nasal cavity may not be visible and will only become apparent during an autopsy.[26]


Although glanders was thought to have been eradicated from Western Europe since the 1960s, there was a case of glanders in Germany in 2014.[27] OIE countries must inform the OIE of a case of glanders; the OIE will place sanctions on that country including restrictions in the international trade of equids and their products for at least six months.[28]


Given the highly infectious nature of the disease and the fact that glanders may be asymptomatic, the equestrian events at the Rio Olympics were somewhat overshadowed amid fears that the disease could still be present at the Deodoro military complex in Rio.



Deodoro military complex


In April 2015, a horse, that resided at the Deodoro military complex, tested positive for glanders, whilst stabled at another facility 600 km from Rio.[29] The horse had been stabled at the Deodoro facility from February to October 2014. The sample was tested in the OIE accredited laboratory in Germany and, once the test was found to be positive for glanders, the horse was quarantined and euthanised. The results were publicly announced in July 2015.[30] Two other horses were quarantined and subjected to further testing in Sao Paulo.


The Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture issued a statement to quell fears among the international equestrian community. It gave assurances that the situation had been dealt with appropriately and that the facility had been vacant since April 2015 and the necessary safety precautions had been taken.[31] Under art. 12.10.4 of the OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Code, the following recommendations are provided to countries which have been affected by glanders in relation to the importation of equines        :


Veterinary Authorities[32] should require the presentation of an international veterinary certificate[33] attesting that the animals:


    1  showed no clinical sign of glanders on the day of shipment;

    2  were kept for the six months prior to shipment in an establishment where no case of glanders was reported during that period;

    3  were subjected to a test as prescribed in the Terrestrial Manual for glanders with negative results, during the 30 days prior to shipment.[34]


As the Olympic Games test event was taking place in August 2015, the Ministry opined that the facility posed no risk to horses for the test event and the 2016 Rio Olympics. The FEI worked in tandem with the Ministry and issued a press release on its website on 9 October 2015.[35] The President of the FEI stated that it expected that the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture would soon be in receipt of an International Veterinary Certificate and concluded:


Therefore we are confident that our horses will be allowed to travel back and forth to Rio to participate in the 2016 Olympic Games together with all the other Olympic sports. We are looking forward to very successful Olympic equestrian events in Deodoro next year.[36]


In response to the fear surrounding glanders, the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture ordered the culling of 623 horses between 2013 and 2015. To some, the actions of the Ministry were extreme, given the fact that the testing methods are often inclusive and the mass destruction of so many horses was reactionary and too hastily ordered.[37] With the exception of two horses, which were based in Deodoro, the other 621 horses resided outside the facility.[38] These horses were euthanised “without truly knowing whether they had glanders or not […] they don’t know how to diagnose it. They get false positives as much as false negatives”.[39]


At the behest of a number of Brazilian horse owners, the Rio de Janeiro Prosecutor’s Office investigated the actions of the Ministry.[40] The investigation found that there was no wrong doing on the part of the Ministry; however, this was little comfort to the horse breeders who questioned the double standard.[41] While the two Deodoro horses were immediately euthanised and the area quarantined immediately, horses outside the Olympic equestrian venue were quarantined and killed in “a slow, bureaucratic process”.[42] The horse breeders who had their horses killed did not receive any compensation. Many of the culled horses were euthanised as a precaution and did not necessarily have glanders.


It is very difficult to detect glanders in some cases; questions were raised about the Brazilian agents who carried out the tests.[43] Often the test will show a positive result and it is not until an autopsy is carried out that a proper diagnosis can be made. In order to assuage international concern over the spread of glanders, the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture perhaps had healthy (national) horses euthanised, in order to restore (international) faith in its ability to host the Olympic Games equestrian events.



Rio equestrian event – biosecurity


Organisers ensured that horses arriving for the Olympics were enveloped in a biospheric bubble that shielded participating horses from the moment they arrived at the airport until they departed. These measures included extensive screening for diseases and parasites on arrival and the subsequent quarantining of the horses at the Deodoro complex.[44] No competitors pulled out from the event, due to the threat of glanders, and national equestrian federations, including the US Equestrian Federation, contended that the Brazilian Ministry had taken all the necessary precautions and had followed OIE protocol. The director general of the OIE, Bernard Vallat DVM endorsed the actions of the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture and stated that the OIE was not worried as the complex had been secured and no horses had resided there in six months.[45] Dr. Vallat acknowledged the safety measures taken by Brazil in response to the threat of glanders in the following terms:


Brazil has taken all necessary measures to protect the biosecurity of all equids participating in the games, starting from their arrival in Brazil, to their arrival at the event venue […].There will be disinfection of equipment, materials, vehicles, even the tyres. And there will be no contact with people along the way. Everything has been planned for this level of security, and it will be a veritable “biosecurity island” within Brazil.





The threat of glanders at the Rio Olympics proved to be unfounded as the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture took the necessary precautions in order to ensure the biosecurity of all horses competing in the equestrian event.


Given the international media attention that surrounded the Zika virus, the issue of glanders was not as widely reported. It is a very rare disease in the developed world; the international equestrian community took cognisance of the seriousness of this highly infectious and zoonotic disease. However, no rider withdrew from the event. Whilst Brazilian horse breeders criticised the response of the Ministry, the precautions taken did much to allay the fear of the threat of the disease spreading to the horses competing from glanders-free countries.


Whilst glanders is endemic in some developing countries, the fact that a German horse tested positive in 2014 may have benefitted Brazil. This was a horse from a developed country that had been glanders-free since 1955. The horse had never travelled outside Germany.[46] It demonstrated that glanders can occur in any country, as horses travel outside their countries of origin for equestrian events and are traded internationally.


As there is no vaccine for glanders, biosecurity measures are imperative and Brazil demonstrated its commitment to ensuring that no horse at the Rio equestrian event contacted the fatal disease. Its treatment of national horses was draconian and it engaged in a cull of non-infected horses. Its response was reactionary and improperly thought out. There was no mention in any of the reports on the issue of animal welfare and the mass culling of domestic horses in Brazil. Brazil seemed very much intent on the Olympic Games running as smoothly as possible and not even the threat of the Zika virus was going to deter the organisers. In fact, glanders paled into insignificance!


[1] University of Limerick Law School Ireland.

[2] Iain Payten, ““Biosecure bubble” used to keep horses free of disease ahead of prestigious equestrian events”, in: The Daily Telegraph, 6 August 2016, available at (accessed 10 November 2016).

[3] Ibid. This figures have been converted from Australian dollars to euros.

[4] Anthony N.B. Kettle and Ulrich Wernery, “Glanders and the risk for its introduction through the international movement of horses”, in: Equine Veterinary Journal (2016) 48, p. 654-658, at 654.

[5] Arnon Shimshony, “Glanders: an ancient zoonosis revisited”, in: Infectious Disease News 10 (2008) 21, available at (accessed 14 November 2016).

[6] Supra note 4. Farcy refers to the form of glanders that affects the skin.

[7] Supra note 5.

[8] Supra note 4, at 654.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Supra note 5. Shimshony notes that the German Military Veterinary Services euthanised 15,776 horses which had been infected by captured Russian horses.

[13] Supra note 4.

[14] Ken Alibek and Stephen Handelman, Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World (Random House, New York 1999), at p. 268. The writers state that there was at least one glanders’ attack between 1982 and 1984; however, there could have been more which were not documented.

[15] Supra note 5.

[16] Supra note 4.

[17] Ibid. In the last five years, cases of glanders have been recorded in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Germany, Kuwait, Lebanon, Brazil, Mongolia, Myanmar, Eritrea, India, Iran, Pakistan and Russia. See Drs. Mandy C. Elschner, Elisabeth Liebler-Tenorio and Heinrich Neubaue, “Equine Glanders: A Diagnostic Approach in Germany”, in: Equine Disease Quarterly 3  (2016) 25 (1), available at: (accessed 23 November 2016).

[18] Supra note 4.

[19] The OIE states that other animals are susceptible to glanders, including camels, felines living in the wild, bears, wolves and dogs. The disease can be passed on to carnivores, who eat infected meat. Both guinea pigs and hamsters are “highly susceptible” to the disease. OIE, Information Sheets: Glanders, at p.1, available at (accessed 23 November 2016).

[20] Horsetalk, “Global horse movements a risk for glanders spread, review suggests”, in:, 13 June 2016), available at (accessed 23 November 2016). A sticky yellow discharge will be visible from the nasal passage. OIE Terrestrial Manual 2015, chapter 2.5.11, Glanders, at p.1, available at: (accessed 23 November 2016).

[21] See John F. Timoney, The Merck Veterinary Manual, Overview of Glanders (Farcy), June 2013, available at (accessed 8 November 2016).

[22] Supra note 19, at p. 3.

[23] Ibid. Shimshony, supra note 5, notes that the disease in its chronic form can live up to 25 years.

[24] Supra note 5.

[25] Ibid. In endemic areas, the animals that are susceptible to the disease must be kept away from communal feeding and watering areas and routine testing should be carried out and animals that test positive should be euthanised.

[26] Elschner, Liebler-Tenorio and Neubaue, supra note 17.

[27] Equine Disease Quarterly, “Diagnosing Glanders in Germany”, in: The Horse, 2 January 2016, available at (accessed 14 November 2016). See also “Case of much-feared glanders confirmed in German horse”, in: Horsetalk, 8 February 2015, available at (accessed 9 November 2016).

[28] OIE, Terrestrial Animal Health Code 2016, chapter 12.10: Glanders, art. 12.10.4: Recommendations for importation from countries considered infected with glanders, available at: (accessed 23 November 2016).

[29] Pippa Cuckson, “Deadly Disease Found at Rio Olympic Site”, in: Horse and Hound, 4 August 2015, available at (accessed 9 November 2016).

[30] Jasmine Wallace, “Glanders Diagnosed In Horse Formerly Stabled At Rio Olympic Games Venue”, in: The Chronical of the Horse, 6 August 2016, available at (accessed 10 November 2016).

[31] Ibid.

[32] Defined in the Terrestrial Code Glossary as: “means the Governmental Authority of a Member Country, comprising veterinarians, other professionals and para-professionals, having the responsibility and competence for ensuring or supervising the implementation of animal health and welfare measures, international veterinary certification and other standards and recommendations in the Terrestrial Code in the whole territory”, available at

[33] A certificate, issued in accordance with chapter 5.2 pertaining to Certification Procedures, which describes the animal health and/or public health requirements which are fulfilled by the exported commodities. Commodities are defined as: “live animals, products of animal origin, animal genetic material, biological products and pathological material”, see

[34] See

[35] “FEI President’s statement on 2016 Olympic equestrian events”, available at (accessed 2 November 2016).

[36] Ibid.

[37] Benjamin Parkin, “Brazil Fights Another Epidemic Before Olympics”, in: The Wall Street Journal, 25 July 2016, available at (accessed 2 November 2016).

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid. Parkin quotes a horse breeder whose horses were quarantined and nine were euthanised.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] It took some time for the Ministry to agree to have the tests sent to an OIE accredited laboratory in Germany, as it insisted on the reliability of its own laboratories in Brazil, Christa Lesté-Lasserre, “Glanders Detected at 2016 Olympic Equestrian Facilities”, in: The Horse, 4 August 2015), available at (accessed 2 November 2016).

[44] Supra note 37.

[45] As cited by Lesté-Lasserre, supra note 43.

[46] “Case of much-feared glanders confirmed in German horse”, supra note 27.