KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The global threat of African Swine Fever (ASF) and trade implications were the highlight of a May 24 panel discussion at the US Meat Export Federation (USMEF) Spring Conference in Kansas City, Missouri. Dave Pyburn, DVM, senior vice president of science and technology with the National Pork Board, clarified some of the looming challenges posed by the devastating virus, which continues to flourish especially in China and in many Asian and European countries.

“For my industry this is the most devastating disease that we could get,” Pyburn said. He said his sources in China tell him that the impact of the virus is extremely swift and within 10 days of infection, individual pigs and in herds, more than 80 percent of the animals die. The outbreak in China, which historically has produced more than half of the world’s pigs, is expected to result in the loss of hundreds of millions of pigs, which includes market hogs and sows. He said among veterinarians in China that he has spoken to recently regarding the ability of producers to bounce back after an outbreak there, “I have yet to hear of any units that have successfully repopulated and kept the virus out.” He added that many producers have given up and have opted to fill their hog barns with poultry instead.

While keeping a close eye on the progress of the disease spreading throughout Asia and Europe, USMEF is focusing domestically on prevention and preparedness. The importance of biosecurity is one overarching theme, including increased surveillance of incoming international flights at domestic airports and bolstering the use of virus-sniffing dogs known as the “Beagle Brigade.” Communication between US animal health officials, pork producers and trade groups continue to be emphasized as stakeholders throughout North America hold their collective breath.

“This virus continues to spread at a rapid rate in China,” Pyburn said, and it is, indeed, endemic. More recently, Vietnam has been especially hard hit as well, with 34 of its provinces reporting outbreaks. Meanwhile, Hong Kong has within the past two weeks confirmed positive cases of ASF, which likely occurred before those reports as the country regularly imported 4,000 pigs per day from China to keep slaughter plants there full. After the virus was discovered in one of the country’s slaughter plants, shipments and slaughter at all of its facilities were halted in those regions, causing near riots in the affected provinces.

As for Korea, Pyburn said it is safe to assume North Korea is positive even if the country hasn’t officially announced it while South Korea and Thailand are nervously hoping to keep the virus at bay.

Pyburn pointed out that while the US Dept. of Agriculture does not permit shipments of pigs or pork products to the US from regions or countries where outbreaks have occurred, imports from Poland have been accepted even though animals from that country have tested positive for ASF. “They have regionalized so that we are not getting pigs or products from the regions that are positive,” Pyburn said. He clarified, however, that no tests are conducted to confirm those animals or products are negative. Regionalization is the protection recognized by Poland and its trading partners just as it would be by the US if an outbreak would occur here.

The virus is spread by close contact among animals and transmission between them can occur through any bodily fluid and currently there is no way of preventing this. The virus is known for being environmentally stable and very hardy. The virus can survive for months in bodily fluids and meat from infected animals can survive for years in freezers. In fact, as China is currently tapping into frozen stocks to supplement its dwindling supply of fresh pork, it is very likely the virus is still active and the infection cycle is continuing, according to Pyburn.

While gene editing and vaccines can keep some infected animals alive, no vaccine or genetic solution for preventing infection in the first place is available. Addressing pharmaceutical solutions, “What we’re talking about for a vaccine here is not a vaccine that dampens clinical signs; it’s not a vaccine that keeps pigs alive,” Pyburn said. “What we’ve got to have is a vaccine that precludes infection. They cannot get infected; we cannot have them shedding.”