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Update on African Swine Fever in China - It's Still Breaking

African swine fever (ASF) is still breaking hard in southern China this summer, says a director at a swine production company in the country. He spoke about ASF at a meeting in Iowa last week. He asked not to be named, and for his company not to be named, because he wants to be able to go back to China. He says he wants his message to scare the swine industry. His company’s farms have been affected. Here are facts, stories, and conclusions he shared. For his safety, the meeting won’t be named, either.

Current situation

The estimate is that 10 million sows and 100 million pigs in inventory have been reduced in China. China says slaughter has decreased by 9 million pigs a month. There are lots of little slaughterhouses, so how accurate is this? It’s not. They can’t track very well, but there is definitely a decrease. There is a lot of pork in cold storage and it has to test as ASF-free now. That means a lot of pork has the potential to be dumped.

We’re hearing about a lot of breaks in southern China, bad breaks, right now. When it breaks, or when there’s a suggested break, there’s a lot of liquidation. Now you’ve got people putting inventory out on the market. On the back side of this, there’s a big old hole. So how big is that hole? We don’t know. Imports are starting to fill up. Warehouses are almost full. They’re storing it up for Chinese New Year and for the shortage they know is coming.

The disease was officially in every province of China by April. Mongolia got its first cases in January, Vietnam in February, Cambodia in April, North Korea in May, and Laos in June.

It’s a disease that doesn’t spread very easy, so why is this spreading so fast? Think back to our industry in the 1980s. You have your buying stations, your feed salesman coming onto your farm, and all kinds of disease vectors. PED taught us a lot of lessons in this country about transportation risks.

Vietnam had 4,400 cases officially reported in one week. China has reported a little more than 100 cases. It’s amazing. How did China control it so much better than Vietnam? We know they didn’t.

There’s been a huge amount of liquidation. If a farm breaks or they suspect it’s breaking, they destroy the sick pigs and send the rest of the barn to market. You’ve got huge liquidation of farms throughout China.

Night of the Living Dead

Once you get ASF, there is not much you can do. There are no effective vaccines. There’s no effective treatment. It’s just about destroying the pigs and disposing of them in the proper way. Now the proper way is to dig a hole far from your farm, put the pigs in, burn them, bury them, and then treat that site as a hazardous waste area for at least a year. You put lime on it.

What’s been done in China is not always the proper way. They dig the hole right next to the barn and put the pigs in. No burning. You know how long the virus lives. If that happened last winter, guess what’s happening this summer? Viruses are coming out of the ground like Night of the Living Dead and reinfecting those farms. That’s a big risk.

Now the Chinese are realizing they have a problem. They’re putting concrete pads on the burial sites, hoping that keeps wild animals from digging the pigs out. Rebreaks on these farms is a reality.

No Vaccine yet

There’s so much excitement that vaccines are going to cure the problem. Some farmers were promised that there was going to be a vaccine available by June, but that didn’t happen. There are no vaccines yet. They’re in clinical trials. It’s nothing but hopes and rumors. They are looking for the silver bullet. The biggest risk in China is that a new vaccine that is not effective gives a lot of people confidence and will lead to disastrous results. U.S. veterinarians estimate that we are five years away from a good vaccine. There have been 40 years of research that has failed. That’s how complicated this virus is. The best way to address it is keep it out. Bio-security.

ASF virus has different strains

The ASF strain in China kills about 90% of the animals. The other 10% probably didn’t get infected. There’s lot of excitement in China about finding resistant pigs. So far, when scientists there find the pigs that didn’t get sick and reinfect them with the virus, they die. That means they never got infected in the first place. So, it’s highly pathogenic. It kills the pigs.

The virus is very complicated and very big. It’s a DNA virus that encodes for 150 to 160 proteins. For context, other common viruses might encode for five proteins. The infection starts in the lymph nodes, spreads through the blood system, and the damage is caused to all of the lining of the blood vessels. It affects every organ and all the body systems. Usually within about seven days you’ll see the symptoms and a few days after it, most of the pigs are dead. Dead or infected.

ASF doesn’t spread very easily, and that’s an important fact to understand. But if the pigs get it, they die. It has very high fatality. It spreads by nose-to-nose contact. It does not spread through the air.

Once you get this virus, it’s hard to kill. It lives in feces for 11 days and blood for 15 weeks. It lives in salted meat for 182 days, dried meat for almost a year, and frozen meat for three years. The Chinese love to take meat snacks with them when they travel. Rules can be bent in Asia. That’s the biggest risk to America.

The virus has an incubation time of about seven days, so if you wait for symptoms, it has spread around the farm already.

When the disease first came out in China, there were only a few labs where you could get an ASF test. That became a real issue. The government started expanding the infrastructure, but not fast enough. You can never go fast enough in an outbreak like this. Companies began to do their own tests. Some had their own machines and were doing testing every day because they wanted to know right away. The hope was if I had a pig that got sick, I can remove all its penmates, but save the rest of the barn. That wasn’t successful. It is possible to contain it to a barn if you’re on top of it right away, but that’s difficult, too. You have to segregate your barns really well. Compliance on biosecurity isn’t easy in China or anywhere else.

Now China is encouraging people to do their own testing. They changed the rule to adapt to what was really going on. Moving breeding stock is still a big challenge.

Chinese swine industry

Big pig farms in China are being built rapidly, but there are still lots of small, backyard farmers. In 2015, 78% of the farms in China had less than 200 sows. What’s bio-security like on those farms? No shower, very little bio-security. Picture what the U.S. industry was like in the 1980s. In China, the buyer comes out to the farm, peeks in and looks at the quality of the pigs and determines the price. You have buying stations and you’ve got large amounts of pigs moving all across the country. One slaughter plant was shipping pigs from 1,000 miles away because they were cheaper. You’ve got such huge movements of pigs all over China.

The disease progressed very quickly in China, even though they worked very hard to try to eradicate and control it. If you had a farm in a 3-kilometer area of an outbreak, every pig was destroyed. If you were in a 10-kilometer area, every pig was locked down. Those farms couldn’t move pigs in or out. There were roadblocks with guys in hazmat suits controlling traffic in and out. The consumption of pork went down dramatically. The methods actually were effective at eradicating it in some areas.

If you are a province with an outbreak, there were huge transportation restrictions. If you were a neighboring province, you had transportation restrictions.

The government was already closing farms near urban centers where pollution was a problem. In 2017 it closed over 70,000 pig farms and moved them north where the corn is grown. Now those regions are locked down. What do you do with all those pigs? You couldn’t move a pig. How much space do you have? Maybe a week. What are you going to do after that week runs out? When you can’t sell a pig, you have to make a choice on which pigs to destroy. Are you going to euthanize the fat hogs? No, you’ve got all your money in them. Your baby pigs? Or pregnant females? The Chinese won’t do anything with pregnant females, so then it comes down to the baby pigs. These guys had to make tough decisions on what to do about space.

Some producers were able to move pigs to the slaughter plant and then got the meat back to freeze.

By November 2018, it was spreading rapidly to the south. Unofficially, about two thirds of the sows in heavily pig populated pig provinces were destroyed. One farmer had 110,000 slaughter pigs he couldn’t move. Luckily, he was in expansion mode on his farm, so he had space to hold the pigs. People started to go around the rules. The government picked up on this and started to relax the rules.

What is the biggest risk to America? Feed components that you’re importing and meat carried by visitors coming from China. Swill feeding needs to be outlawed in every state and people need to stop that.

People in China are switching to chicken and other protein sources. A lot of people have lowered their pork consumption due to food safety concerns, even though ASF does not pass on to humans. But people stop eating pork because they’re afraid. Now the question is, will they change their behaviors permanently or will they come back to pork? The fear is that they’ll stay switched permanently.

ASF history

African swine fever started in Africa. Warthogs carry the disease, but they don’t get sick. The virus goes from the warthog to the domestic pig; the domestic pig gets sick and dies. The first spillover from Africa started in 1957 and came from ships. The ships that were docked in Africa were picking up food. By the time they got to other countries, the food wastage was fed to pigs as swill feed. That’s how it spread. ASF spread through a number of countries, and they eradicated it. The next spillover came in 2007. It started in the country of Georgia, went to Russia, and moved into Eastern Europe. From there it went to Western Europe and now into Asia. The problem is it’s gotten into the wild boar population. It’s really hard to eradicate ASF when it’s in the wild boar population.

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