The African swine fever virus may be harmless to humans but it threatens to spread across China, the world’s top producer of pigs.
The virus has been reported in seven provinces in China since Aug. 1. An outbreak has so far caused the death of about 400,000 pigs and threatens to disrupt the $128 billion pork industry.
The African swine fever virus can survive for more than a year in a dry-cured ham, so with no vaccine available to protect animals from it, the lethal virus could easily spread among China’s 433 million pigs.
It also isn’t just China that is under threat of the virus. African swine fever may even reach other countries, including the United States.
Juan Lubroth, chief veterinary officer with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, said after an emergency meeting in Bangkok this month that the disease will almost certainly also emerge in other countries.
Bloomberg reported that countries receiving a large number of international travelers with clandestine food parcels are particularly vulnerable.
The pathogen on the local farms matched a highly virulent strain that surfaced in the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2007, which dispersed across Estonia in Europe and Russia.
This led to speculations that the disease may have been introduced to the country via trade in live pigs with the European Union and Russia, illegal importation, and disposal of products that contain pig meat. It remains unclear though how exactly the virus entered China.
“We still don’t know how the virus got into China, and it’ll be very difficult to tell exactly how it happened,” said Wantanee Kalpravidh, Bangkok-based regional manager of FAO’s Emergency Center for Transboundary Animal Diseases.
China has already banned the transport of pig products and live hogs from regions that border provinces with reported swine fever outbreaks, and those that have had cases of the disease. It also banned feed derived from pig blood and feeding animals with kitchen waste.
In an article published on Monday, state-backed People’s Daily reminded consumers that people could not catch the disease. It also urged the public not to worry since pork bought through standard channels go through inspection.
Still, the outbreaks in China have important implications for the country whose people eat more than half of the world’s pork. Angus Gidley-Baird, a senior animal proteins analyst with Rabobank Australia, said the country may have to increase its import of pig meat and possibly beef meat, and this could affect global supply chains.