Fears are growing that the outbreak of African swine fever in China could turn into an epidemic, infecting pigs across the region and even in the United States.

In a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, concerns have been expressed about the “virulent strain” of the “virus.”

“[There is a] major threat to the swine industry in China and to the livelihoods of small-scale farmers and others along the value chain,” the study stated, “… because pork is produced and consumed by so many Asian countries, particularly in East and Southeast Asia, the introduction of the virus to other countries of the region is a near certainty.”

To underline how serious the situation is, the report added that “there is no vaccine and no cure for the disease.” 

“In its most virulent strain, it is 100% fatal to infected pigs,” the report said. “However, unlike swine flu, ASF [African swine fever] poses no direct health threat to humans.”

In response, Chinese state media has continued to report that “swine fever is under control,” even though global pork-industry insiders, analysts and scientists consider that highly unlikely.

“I remain very skeptical of any notion that China has this under control,” Arlan Suderman, the chief commodities economist at INTL FCStone Financial, said in an email to Asia Times. “It doesn’t fit with the continued rise in cases over a broad area. There are too many ways in which this long-living virus can survive in the environment to declare it under control this soon.”

Last month, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs announced that it was banning feeding pigs with kitchen waste – otherwise known as swill. The ministry blamed the widespread practice as being behind 57 reported outbreaks of the disease. 

It also announced that it was bringing in a registration system for vehicles that transport live hogs and poultry – often over distances beyond 2,000 kilometers, according to a Reuters report. 

But statements like these have done little to alleviate anxieties about the spread of ASF beyond China’s borders into neighboring countries and eventually into the United States.

Christine McCracken, the executive director of Animal Protein at Rabobank, said in an interview with Successful Farming, an industry magazine, that China would struggle to contain the outbreak.

“It all comes down to China,” she added. “Given the lack of biosecurity, the number of pigs in the country, and the fact that half are backyard pigs, there’s almost no way they can get ASF under control. 

McCracken then warned of the consequence of a potential pig virus epidemic. “How are they going to feed their people? Because if they don’t feed their people, they’ve got a massive political issue. Food insecurity is not a good recipe for future political aspirations,” she said.

China has at least 433 million pigs, according to Statista, which is more than half of the world’s hog population, and is a crucial part of the human food chain in the world’s second-largest economy. 

In a Twitter broadcast last week, commodities economist Suderman said: “Pork is the topmost driver of food inflation in China … [and] African Swine Fever is about as bad as it gets for hog diseases. This is a country that has around 55% of the world’s hogs in it, has the disease and is nowhere close to controlling it.”

“The US pork industry is quite worried about the disease reaching here. They are no longer talking about ‘if’ the disease will come, but rather ‘how long can we keep it out,’ hoping to buy time for vaccine development,” he added.

Analysts believe the likeliest mode of transmission for ASF to the US would be via hog feed. American pig farmers have increased safety procedures by leaving animal-feed ingredients imported from China in storage.

report by PLOS One, a peer-reviewed open-access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science in the US, called ASF “a highly contagious pathogen that threatens the swine industry worldwide.”

The study is detailed and complex, involving tests on the survival rates of the virus in trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific shipments of livestock feed. But the results showed that contaminated feed could survive during shipping and infect pigs in the US.

Economically, the cost of an outbreak in the world’s largest economy would be US$16.5 billion during the first year, the PLOS One report stated.

“This is a very serious disease that would have devastating economic consequences in the United States,” Greg Ibach, the US Department of Agriculture’s Under Secretary for marketing and regulatory programs, told Reuters.

 Journey by stealth

Still, the ASFV story is an extraordinary tale of an epic journey by stealth that began where it was first reported in 1909 in Sub-Saharan Africa. Writing in a subscriber newsletter called ProMED-mail, which is issued by the International Society for Infectious Diseases, Larry Madoff, the editor said: “Highly robust … the virus can persist in uncooked pork for weeks whether it is fresh, frozen, or dried and salted, and can stay viable in pig carcasses for months.”

A report by Wageningen University and Research in The Netherlands went on to trace how the virus spread from Africa in 1957 to Portugal. Outbreaks continued to flare up on the Iberian Peninsula until the late 1990s before being eradicated in all but one viral outpost, Sardinia.

Then in 2007, ASF appeared in Georgia in the Caucasus. This was the beginning of a steady march across borders. It spread next to Abkhazia and Armenia, and later in the same year it was discovered in wild boars in Chechnya, Russia.

By 2008, it had traveled 1,000 km to Azerbaijan, North Ossetia.

Finally, the virus became a serious contender as a global threat to the food chain when in August 2018, an outbreak was reported in the northeastern province of Liaoning in China. How it spread is still being investigated but roaming wild boars along the Sino-Russian border could have been the carriers of the virus. After all, it stretches for 4,209.3 km.

Yet it could also have been transmitted through pork imports from an affected European Union country, which is why the jury is still out.

 Out of control

As Madoff said in his ProMED alert: “Since then, there have been 57 outbreaks of ASF affecting 14 Chinese provinces and municipalities – some separated by thousands of kilometers. The speed at which the disease has spread and the distances covered indicate that live animals are being transported long distances or that shipments of pork products are spreading the disease. More than 210,000 animals have been killed to try to prevent an epidemic.”

Commodities analyst Suderman concurred with Madoff’s assessment, telling Asia Times in an email that according to the latest report he had seen “China had ‘eliminated’ approximate 200,000 pigs – one-tenth of the countrywide population.” He added: “That number may be higher, we don’t know, that’s just what’s being officially reported.”

John Deen, a distinguished global professor in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, which is part of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota, told Asia Times that this has become a “complicated issue” and that it was “being addressed with a limited set of resources.” This is especially true when “compared with pandemics in human populations,” he added.

But he said on the subject of China’s pig problem: “Yes, there are farms that have good biosecurity, but most pigs are reared under circumstances where the likelihood of infection is too great, as they are exposed to risks such as contaminated food, trucks and premises.

“In the pig world, this is likely to be the top story of 2019 as it appears to be changing the dynamics of pig production,” he added.

Yet Deen pointed out that the threat to pig production and global supplies of pork were far less due to the deaths of infected hogs than due to the large-scale culling efforts to prevent ASF’s spread.

“The real economic damage is from restrictions in trade,” he said. “China is a net importer, but trade has been restricted between provinces, causing the price of pigs to plummet in the ‘haves’ and, conversely, prices to rise in the ‘have-nots’. The damage would even be greater if ASF enters an exporting country such as the US.”

Meanwhile, the disease continues its insidious infiltration of China’s pig population because “all of the backyard hog farms that are so difficult for the government to control,” he added. 

Another area of concern is that hog production is concentrated in China’s northeast and transported across the country, increasing contagion risks. “China shut down transportation of hogs once it learned of the problem, but it was too late by that point,” Suderman said. “The disease was rapidly spreading.”

International policymakers

Many industry insiders and international policymakers also worry the virus’ march may now be unstoppable, and that the next points of infection are likely to be China’s neighbors.

Speaking at a three-day emergency meeting organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Bangkok in September, Wantanee Kalpravidh, Regional Manager of the FAO Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Diseases (ECTAD) in Asia, said: “It’s critical that this region be ready for the very real possibility that ASF could jump the border into other.”

To combat this, Deen, of the University of Minnesota, is calling for greater funding to tackle the problem. “Attempts to lock down the ASF virus are likely to be hampered due to lack of funding for controlling epizootic diseases, which do not affect human beings,” he said.

“[We have all seen] the response and investment in human pandemics such as SARS,” he continued. “We continue to see investment in the prevention of pandemics through programs such as the Global Health Security Agenda. Livestock disease control gains little investment, and frankly, most of that investment occurs for those diseases that are zoonotic, affecting both animals and humans.

“Investment in disease control in livestock is limited, with a much lower capacity to diagnose and control diseases in these populations,” Deen added.

The tragic irony of this allocation of resources for disease control is that it might, eventually, have as much impact on a vital protein-source in the food chain for billions of people as a human epidemic could.