ASF: Will It Be Coming to a Farm near You?

By JoAnn Alumbaugh

African swine fever (ASF) continues its steady, all-encompassing spread across Asia. When it is identified in a new region, the pork industries in that region change immediately and dramatically. Understandably, the threat of ASF keeps US pig farmers awake at night. While US pork production differs significantly from Asia’s swine industry, we can learn important lessons about this global disease threat from other countries’ experiences.

“More people live in urban than rural environments throughout the world,” says Juan LuBroth, DVM, Chief Veterinary Officer for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The ASF expert was a keynote speaker at the U.S. Animal Health Association annual meeting earlier this fall, where he shared his ASF experiences with the veterinarians, producers and government officials in attendance. Headquartered in Rome, the FAO’s primary focus is on people’s livelihoods, elimination of hunger, food security, sustainable agriculture and food production.

More opportunities but more threats, too
“Consumption of livestock products is growing rapidly – as countries become wealthier, they want more animal protein products,” he states. The outcome is expanded livestock production in those countries, as well as increased imports and exports. While this scenario is good for domestic consumption and global economies, it also amplifies the threat of spreading foreign animal diseases like ASF. The FAO has projects all over the world that focus on global and local impacts.

The FAO is particularly concerned about small-holder farmers in China, where pig production is a part of the rural culture. Going back to the last century, Chairman Mao Zedong encouraged every family to have one or two pigs, LuBroth explains.

“Understanding pig production is quite important,” he says. “There is intensive, semi-intensive and extensive pig production. In China, 67% of swine production is backyard, or extensive production.” That vast and diverse pig population has been a major contributor to the rapid spread of ASF.

Earlier this year, the FAO published a Food Outlook special section on ASF. The report outlines the spread of ASF in Asia, actions taken by each infected country and FAO recommendations and actions. As LuBroth points out, it’s not just pig farmers who are affected.

“The sharp decline in production will impact the amount of soy or corn that is consumed as animal feed,” he says. “Exports of soy and corn will decline, creating price and market disruption.”

Devastating consequences
When ASF was identified in the Russian Federation, FAO was encouraging the European Union to focus on diagnostic and control measures, and create directives for member-states. A global framework was developed for the control of transboundary diseases, to synergize and coordinate efforts. The FAO also wrote a risk analysis anticipating the outcome if ASF were to enter China.

“We knew there would be devastating consequences for China and for other regions,” LuBroth says. “Transport-associated routes would be the most relevant pathways, along with illegal imports of food. We knew ASF would likely become endemic.”

A consortium was established to work on a vaccine, but the double-stranded ASF virus has made vaccine development challenging. LuBroth is aware vaccines are available in China “that are not necessarily approved by the government,” he says. “They do not meet international standards and can exacerbate the problem.”

The wild boar population also remains a major concern. “There is a lot we know about wild boar habitat and behavior: The average-size litter from a wild sow is 6 pigs, but 8 pigs survive,” LuBroth jokes.

The other point of entry for ASF is through pork products, so understanding a country’s culture is a key point, LuBroth says. It’s important to understand the country’s emphasis on biosecurity, or lack thereof.

Promising tools
The FAO and its standing group of experts are building capacity to better address ASF and other foreign animal diseases through epidemiology training, lab training, collection and identification and diagnosis.

“A pocket-held PCR test to continue the validation process with ASF has worked very well,” LuBroth says.

“Detection is not the issue, however,” he adds. “Reporting, disease containment and understanding the markets are the issues. The key to controlling African swine fever is biosecurity, biosecurity, and biosecurity, and not necessarily in that order.”

As much as the US pork industry hopes African swine fever (ASF) won’t enter the country, the challenge is formidable. An enormous number of food products are confiscated every day at the border, and the number of people traveling to the US from infected countries continues to grow. Both scenarios create a constant threat, but the enduring goal is to keep the virus out of US pork operations.

“It’s each country’s responsibility to control ASF,” says Juan LuBroth, DVM, Chief Veterinary Officer for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “We [FAO] can make suggestions, but we are more the carrot than the stick,” he told attendees of the 2019 U.S. Animal Health Association annual meeting this fall. Headquartered in Rome, the FAO’s primary focus is on people’s livelihoods, the elimination of hunger, food security, sustainable agriculture and food production. Heavily embedded in those priorities is human and animal disease control.

LuBroth has worked extensively on ASF in China and is considered an authority on the virus. He says each country is different, noting it’s important to understand the methods of pork production in each region.

“Country-by-country needs have to be considered,” he says. “A restructuring of the swine sector is likely to occur in China.”

Is the US prepared?
The FAO’s role is primarily in training and advising, and more so in low- to middle income countries. But when LuBroth was asked whether or not he believed the US pork industry was prepared to deal with ASF, he said, “The US and Canada have a history of creating awareness of what diseases might be coming into a country.”

Understanding, awareness and education are critical components of a disease control program. A coordinated effort on the local, state, regional and federal levels will help prepare producers for ASF, should it be identified in a US pork operation.

“There is always room for improvement, but we have learned some important lessons,” LuBroth says.

Full involvement
While the US pork industry may be prepared, LuBroth says a whole-government approach is needed, and that may be a potential weakness.

“The standing group of experts we have in Europe is very focused on the need for a whole-government approach,” he says.” A program needs to include the private sector and the wildlife sector to be effective.

“You’re only as healthy as your neighbor is,” Lubroth adds. Outreach to local communities for small producers is key, and biosecurity has never been more important.

An appropriate reporting mechanism is also vital, LuBroth says.

“In the case of the hand-held PCR, the person who uses it is trained,” he says.

The US has robust university, state and federal networks to work on tools necessary for foreign animal disease control, where before it was exclusively at Plum Island, LuBroth says. Tests need to be inexpensive and accurate or they won’t be used.

Is it realistic to think that ASF can be eradicated in China before there’s an effective vaccine? LuBroth says vaccines are not a silver bullet. A good vaccine would be a useful tool, but to rely entirely on the promise of a vaccine is ill-advised.

The progressive pathway for risk management of a foreign animal disease like ASF requires a coordinated effort with government, regulatory officials on every level, university researchers, the private sector and pork groups in a step-wise approach, LuBroth says.