African swine fever: What we know and why we must stay vigilant

One has to assume that eventually the U.S. will have its own ASF outbreak to manage, contain and eliminate.

January 21, 2019

5 Min Read
swine with syringe and vaccine and broken wording of african swine fever
Freer Law/iStock/GettyImagesPlus

By Clayton Johnson, DVM, Carthage Veterinary Service
Since August of 2018, the African swine fever outbreak in China has captured the global pork industry’s attention. Risk factors for transmission to the United States have been reviewed, contingency plans for a domestic ASF outbreak have been discussed and lean hog futures have improved on the speculation of increased U.S. pork demand. 

It is no surprise that China is struggling to contain the outbreak, but even for those of us close to the Chinese pork industry, the rate of transmission across China has been staggering. The official count is now over 100 outbreaks and over 850,000 pigs have been culled, but no one believes either of those numbers come close to representing the true impact of the infection.  Speculation of the true ASF impact is rampant, with common estimates of 10-20 real cases for every new one reported and closer to 10,000,000 mortalities versus the reported losses of 850,000. Couple this speculation with the increasingly common reports of contaminated meat products arriving at international airports in the luggage of Chinese travelers and it’s safe to say the ASF rumor mill will continue to flourish in 2019!

What we know:

  • ASF is and will continue to be endemic in China. The identification of ASF-infected wild boars was the last nail in this coffin. There is no hope for ASF elimination and any ASF focused biosecurity plans must be maintained for the foreseeable future.

  • There is no effective vaccine or treatment for ASF. Nearly all infected hogs will die from the disease. Once a site is infected it will remain infected indefinitely, until all pigs are emptied from the site and the site is thoroughly cleaned and decontaminated.

  • ASF-related mortalities only demonstrate part of the production impact ASF is having on Chinese hog production. Chinese producers are hesitant to breed sows given the movement restrictions, uncertain market access and volatile market prices. Infected sites must sit empty for a period of time following depopulation and some producers will choose not to repopulate infected sites given the fear of reinfection. ASF is not only killing pigs, but also directly impacting the volume of the active Chinese breeding herd.

  • Chinese pork products are contaminated with ASF. As you read this, there are people entering the U.S. with Chinese pork products in their luggage and if we don’t have illegally smuggled ASF-contaminated pork products in the U.S. right now, it’s just a matter of time. This meat will cause an infection if consumed by a pig, we must address garbage/swill feeding and strive to intercept as much meat as possible at customs. 

  • Chinese New Year (also known as Spring Festival) is Feb. 5, 2019. This is the largest and longest public holiday in China and is a time of great movement as Chinese travel for family gatherings and celebrations. The presence of an ASF-contaminated pork supply in conjunction with the largest travel event of the year is a recipe for disaster with a spike in infections likely to occur in the weeks following this holiday. 

  • Infection of neighboring countries in Southeast Asia is highly likely during 2019. Infected carcasses are washing up on the shores of Taiwan. Infected pig farms have been officially reported right next to Hong Kong. There are officially reported infected sites close to the borders of Laos and Myanmar. These areas have very porous borders and ASF infections in neighboring countries must be considered imminent. 

Why we must stay vigilant:

  • Biosecurity is currently our only ASF management tool. We can’t treat or control the infection once it’s entered a pig population. There is no vaccine and at least for the foreseeable future it doesn’t appear there will be one. ASF-resistant genotypes is an attractive solution, but even if the technological hurdles can be overcome there is a tremendous regulatory and public perception obstacle awaiting that solution. 

  • Feed ingredients are a critical risk for ASF introduction and current supply chain constraints limit producers’ ability to shift the entire industry away from Chinese manufactured ingredients. Kansas State University is currently studying mitigants to determine what products are best suited to prevent ASF introduction via contaminated ingredients. Stay close to this research and quickly apply their learnings to your operation to decrease the risk of ASF introduction via feed.

  • ASF outbreaks in China, Russia and the European Union give us a series of case studies to closely monitor and learn. We should humbly accept our own failures in preventing the introduction and establishment of porcine epidemic diarrhea, Seneca Valley Virus, delta coronavirus and other diseases, which have entered the U.S. and now reside as endemic pathogens. We must improve our outbreak management capabilities or we are doomed to repeat our failures. 

  • The market opportunity created by ASF is difficult to quantify, but critical for producers to understand as they make 2019 marketing decisions. Hard projections of Chinese market hog inventories won’t be available, but we can estimate domestic supply by monitoring Chinese market hog prices and pork imports.  Futures markets contain a built-in ASF impact assumption – only time will tell whether this assumption is correct and there will be a significant revenue impact for producers who best manage this situation. 

  • We must fund and promote efforts toward ASF vaccine development. The ASF-free areas of the world are getting smaller and smaller every year. One has to assume that eventually the U.S. will have its own ASF outbreak to manage, contain and eliminate. An ASF vaccine may open up control, elimination and regionalization strategies that we can’t consider today. 

  • We must fund and promote efforts toward ASF risk awareness and preparedness. Communication will be critical during a U.S. ASF outbreak, we must establish communication plans and processes now and have them in place ready to be utilized. The days immediately following an outbreak will be hectic, scary and chaotic – we can’t wait to build communication plans and processes during that time. 

Source: Carthage Veterinary Service, which is solely responsible for the information provided, and wholly owns the information. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

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