Deadly pig virus could hit US in a year, warn experts

African swine fever has been spreading rapidly in China and has also travelled from Russia and Eastern Europe to Belgium. Experts fear it is only a matter of time before it reaches the US.

A Chinese Epidemic Prevention Officer investigates a site blocked due to African swine fever in the Beijing district of Tongzhou, China. Photograph: Wu Hong/EPA

A global outbreak of African swine fever will reach the US within a year unless border protections are tightened and imports of high-risk pork products banned, warn biosecurity experts. It would cost the US economy $16.5bn (£12.9bn) in the first year alone, it has been estimated.

An ongoing epidemic of the virus, which is deadly for pigs but cannot yet be transmitted to humans, has prompted the US Department of Agriculture to review and strengthen its border protections. After outbreaks in Belgium and China this year, the USDA has increased the use of sniffer dogs at major ports, airports, land borders crossings, and has also built quarantine stations and increased passenger and cargo inspections on flights from China and Russia, the worst hit countries.2018 has seen the outbreak of ASF in a number of new countries.

However, scientists say these measures do not go far enough and call on the US government to make “immediate and radical” changes, including banning imports of soy products from infected countries. The arrival of the deadly swine virus could cost $16.5bn in losses in the first year alone, according to research published in the Public Library of Science.

“If we continue to do business as usual then [the US] will probably get ASF in a year. If we change some of our practices, which we are trying to do, then there’s a chance we can keep it out,” said Dr Scott Dee, biosecurity specialist and chief scientist at one of the America’s largest veterinary practices, Pipestone Applied Research.

“If it got into the wild pig population it would be a disaster. I don’t even like to have the conversation about what we’d do if it got in because by that point we’ve already lost the war.”

The virus is spread either through contact, or through contaminated meat products; it can survive in processed meat for several months, and in frozen meat for a number of years. In October, a packet of sausages confiscated at a Japanese airport was tested and found to contain the virus. At present it is not a danger to humans, but there are fears that it could mutate.

There is currently no vaccine or known cure. Once the virus is detected, the whole herd must be killed, creating severe financial consequences for producers.

In Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, pork exports have fallen by $961m, representing up to 50% of their total. An outbreak was reported in Belgium on 13 September, sparking fears that the virus will spread through western Europe.

Since August, the virus has swept through China, home to nearly half the world’s pigs. More than 600,000 pigs have been culled since the first case was reported in the north-eastern province of Liaoning. In five months, ASF has spread to 21 provinces, causing severe losses to farmers and major disruptions to the domestic pork market. It has jumped vast distances in a short period of time, appearing in the north, Shenyang, and Sichuan within a three-month period.

Given the integrated nature of global supply chains, the virus could jump borders and enter the US, which could destabilise pork markets and international trade.

While sniffing passenger baggage, APHIS trained detector dog Hardy uncovered a hog’s head able to bring diseases like African swine fever and foot and mouth disease to the United States. Photograph: Courtesy USDA

The risk to the US is high because of the large volumes of agricultural produce imported from China, according to biosecurity specialists, and due to the ASF’s strong viral resilience; it can survive journeys of 30 hours or more and live in foodstuffs. “We are dealing with a very stable virus. It can live outside the host, outside the pig in all sorts of different conditions – low PH, high PH, dirt, meat,” said Dr Dee.

In China, the government has shut down small farms, halted transport of live pigs and pork, and closed meat markets in towns and cities in an effort to contain the epidemic.

Yu Kangzhen, vice-minister of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, said in a press statement on 27 November that the risk of the fever spreading cannot be ignored as the country is still faced with a challenging situation of disease control. There are concerns that Chinese provincial governments are suppressing data and asking pork companies not to report new outbreaks.

“This has seriously affected small farmers who are suffering as a result,” says Wanqing Zhou, an associate with Brighter Green, a public policy action tank based in New York, adding.

“This will almost certainly lead to a geographically more distributed system of meat processing and further expansion of the cold-chain and supermarket model. Such development seems to match the trend of closing down wet markets in large cities, like Beijing.”

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