Europe is at war. Not conventional military conflict, but a battle against an unprecedented, rampant virus.
An epizootic some are calling ‘pig Ebola’, officially known as African swine fever (ASF), has already laid waste the Chinese pig industry, and soon it will have European pig farms in its clutches.
Or certainly, that is how things are looking, given the current readiness levels in Europe and the rapid escalation of Eastern European outbreaks of infection.
The main concern for Europe’s pork producers is that the virus has reached Belgium: specifically, the French border with Belgium. France is planning a segregation fence for this reason; Denmark has already started building its own, this one on the border with Germany. Each of these nations aims to block the migration of wild boar which also carry the virus and are often responsible for the transmission of infections across borders.
The disease is devasting to domesticated pig populations, killing 90 percent of animals infected. While the virus only affects pigs, the consequences of large-scale contraction in a country are being demonstrated in harrowing fashion in China. There have been recorded outbreaks of ASF in every province in the country, with the first cases having emerged in August last year. The government has admitted to culling 2 million animals so far, however, analyst have posited that this is a massive undercount.
Researchers are placing estimates of animals dead by the end of the year at 200 million, or roughly half of all Chinese pigs. The scale is shocking, particularly as China is home to more than half of the global pig population.
“It’s historic; there’s never been anything like this in the history of modern animal production,” said Christine McCracken, a senior analyst. “And it’s a frightening situation only in that there is no current control.”
At present, there is no cure or vaccine for African swine fever, although research is underway.
In Europe, outbreaks have been building slow but steady momentum. Recently, the European Commission placed Poland, Bulgaria, and Lithuania on a list of high-risk areas. However, while cases have been recorded all across Eastern Europe, and now, inevitably, in Belgium as well, the response from European authorities has been limited.
Elsewhere, it is being described as the biggest animal disease outbreak ever seen on the planet, one that makes the foot and mouth disease and mad cow disease outbreaks seem trivial.
“Given the magnitude of the losses in China’s hog and pork supplies, the impending impact on global protein supply…is likely to be a multi-year event,” predicted Noel White, the CEO of US-based Tyson Foods.
Experts now fear that the outbreak will spread across ASF-free countries due to inadequate import controls. “Given a nearly 100% fatality rate depending on the serotype of the virus, every component involved in swine production must be evaluated — including feed”, says Peter Fidder, director of Quality Affairs at Trouw Nutrition. “High-risk ingredients include grains, vegetable carriers and ingredients like vitamins or pigments on vegetable carriers”, he adds.
Last year, ASF was found in Chinese animal feed, just before “scientists in the US discovered that potentially harmful DNA from the African swine fever (ASF) virus can survive on feed ingredients including corn, rice and wheat, as well as complete feed, imported from Asia”, PigWorld UK Magazine reports.
Before the most recent string of outbreaks, experts warned that ASF represented a serious threat to the global pig industry due to the nature of the virus and the lack of preventions available.
Vaccine development against ASF has been hampered by large gaps in knowledge concerning ASFV infection and immunity. However, following the crushing effects of the past year, efforts towards vaccine research, at least in the US, have stepped up significantly.
One concern is that even if vaccines are developed, given the scale of the problem, they may not be universally applicable. Preventative medical technologies for outbreaks in China and Europe might not be able to affect the much older strains found in Africa.
In spite of this possibility, the U.S Department of Agriculture recently signed a confidential agreement with a manufacturer to further develop existing vaccine candidates in Plum Island, Ney York. This is good news for the countries concerned with the virus, however, the process of testing and making adjustments will be long and demanding, said Dr. Linda Dixon, an ASF expert at London’s Pirbright Institute. She expects that the process will take anywhere from two to five years to complete.
While U.S. institutions like the National Pork Producers Council and the U.S. Department of Agriculture coordinate effectively on the risks of ASF, and on methods of prevention and protection, in Europe institutional response has been very limited and less well-coordinated. Perhaps this is due to the political structure of the block and the transitionary time in which the outbreaks are occurring.
Nevertheless, the threat to European pig farmers is far greater than their U.S counterparts. The price tag associated with a catastrophic series of outbreaks in the four big pig farming nations, Spain, France, The Netherlands, and Denmark, would likely be expressed in the billions, so the time fix such problems is in the past. Now, what European pig farmers need from their governments is action.