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MU lab aids surveillance efforts for African swine fever

MU VMDL MU VMDL ASF testing.jpg
Lab has testing capacity, communications plan in place if outbreak were to occur.

Recent reports of African swine fever (ASF) outbreaks in the Dominican Republic and Haiti have heightened surveillance efforts for the highly contagious viral swine disease in the United States.

University of Missouri’s Shuping Zhang, professor and director of the Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory (VMDL) in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine, recently discussed the dangers of ASF and the role the VMDL plays in testing for the virus to help protect animal health and the country’s agriculture industry.

According to Zhang, an outbreak in the U.S. would be devastating to the economy, particularly the agriculture industry.

“Governments often block pork imports from countries with confirmed cases of ASF, so there would be enormous economic consequences if we were unable to continue exporting pigs and pork products abroad,” she said, adding that a 2018 outbreak in China, where half of the earth’s pigs are located, killed more than 100 million pigs.

The good news is that no cases have been confirmed in the U.S.

Clinical signs of ASF

Zhang said clinical signs of ASF include high fever, lethargy, depression, skin discoloration, and possibly vomiting and diarrhea. Other signs to look for include swollen or enlarged spleens and lymph nodes.

The MU VMDL collaborates with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state veterinarians and pork producers to conduct general surveillance testing and testing of sick pigs from swine farms and slaughterhouses across Missouri.

After receiving samples, the lab produces test results within six hours. If a test were to come back positive, Zhang said the VMDL has communication plans in place to alert state and federal authorities within minutes. “That way, decisions regarding quarantining and the imports or exports of pork products can be made immediately to protect United States trade interests and quickly identify the extent of the outbreak.”

VMDL testing capacity

Zhang said the lab has been testing for ASF for many years and currently has six staff members who are certified to test for ASF and eight polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines for ASF testing.

“Our current capacity is about 1,500 test samples per day. But, if an outbreak were to occur, we could immediately increase our capacity given our resources.”

Zhang noted that there are 60 labs across the country that are part of the National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN). However, the MU VMDL is the only NAHLN Level 1 lab in Missouri, the highest level a lab can achieve, and the only animal health lab in Missouri that is accredited by the American Association of Veterinarian Laboratory Diagnosticians.

“We take pride in our responsibility and obligation to protect both animal health and the agriculture industry, which is very important for Missouri’s economy. By testing for and diagnosing viruses, bacteria and pathogens, we help Missourians stay safe while training the next generation of veterinarian diagnosticians and supporting the university’s research mission.”

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