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Pig Virus Found In China Puts U.S. Officials On Alert

A deadly pig virus found in China could be devastating if it gets to the United States.
Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media file photo
A deadly pig virus found in China could be devastating if it gets to the United States.

Veterinarians and officials are hoping to keep a deadly foreign virus from infecting the American hog industry. African swine fever has been making its way off its namesake continent and into Europe, including Russia. Now, it’s reached China, leading to the culling of about 8,000 hogs.

In response, Japan closed its market to all pork imports from China.

“China has approximately half the pigs in the world and this is a pig-dense region of China where this was found,” said James Roth, a professor of veterinary medicine at Iowa State University who has helped develop an emergency preparedness plan for the pork industry.

He said African swine fever is one of the biggest foreign disease threats to U.S. hog farms. Unlike some of the other diseases Roth watches, it does not have a vaccine. The only way to stop its spread is to contain it.

“If it gets into feral swine, and we have a lot of feral swine in the U.S.,” Roth said, “it will be very hard, perhaps impossible to eradicate if we don’t catch it early.”

Chinese officials say they have contained it, but Roth fears they “may be optimistic.”

That’s because the virus can survive for a long time in the environment and if it has already infected some other site that has not been identified, it could still be circulating.

Should the virus be identified in the United States, Roth said export markets would immediately be closed to U.S. pork. The disease does not pose a threat to human health, but no countries would want to risk infecting their own livestock.

With tariff pressures and trade uncertainties already straining the U.S. pork sector, a novel disease that shuts off all remaining export markets could be devastating.

But a virus has crossed into American pigs from China before. Five years ago, porcine epidemic diarrhea virus arrived and has killed millions of piglets. Pipestone Veterinary Services researcher Scott Dee found a possible source: contaminated feed. He says it’s impossible to identify a smoking gun for virus transport, but when he expanded his studies to look at other viruses, he found African swine fever could also potentially travel the world in feed.

“It lives outside the host for extended periods of time under all sorts of difficult conditions,” Dee said. “It’d be really easy to just accidentally move it around and then get it into the feed mill and contaminate the feed mill.”

With colleagues at Kansas State University and South Dakota State University, Dee has been looking at products that could potentially kill viruses in feed before they have a chance to infect animals.

Roth said producers and veterinarians know what signs to look for and veterinary diagnostic labs have the knowledge to identify African swine fever. But Roth said funding for them is inadequate and he’s watching the reconciliation of the House and Senate farm bills in hopes the final version will increase lab budgets.

“We’re really hopeful that the conference committee will step forward and make sure that that funding is in there,” Roth said, “because early detection is really the only tool we have to try and find it early and stamp it out.”

Follow Amy on Twitter: @AgAmyinAmes

Copyright 2018 Harvest Public Media

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.