Before the coronavirus pandemic spread illness, panic and economic disaster across the world, the big epidemic story of China was one that affected not humans but pigs.
Between 2018 and 2019, a quarter of the world’s pig population died from an African swine fever outbreak that spread across China.
The ASF was first detected in Kenya in 1909 and spread across Europe and the Americas in the 1960s-80s. In 2018, Shenyang, China, became home to the first and deadliest outbreak of the virus in Asia; following which, ASF started spreading in the Philippines, Vietnam, East Timor, and South Korea.
The virus is spread to pigs, warthogs and wild boards through ticks and causes the animal to suffer fever, fatigue, difficulty breathing, skin discolorations, blood clots, diarrhea, vomiting and usually, death within ten days.
As the outbreak spread across Asia, leading to a spike in pork prices, countries like South Korea deployed snipers and drones to kill infected pigs that were crossing over from the border with North Korea.
China lost up to 100 million pigs to the virus according to government figures and, combined with culling, lost up to 60 percent of its pig population according to official figures cited by the South China Morning Post.
As the world’s largest importer and producer of pork, the result was soaring consumer inflation, making it harder for ordinary citizens to afford food.
The Consumer Price Index in China is so closely linked to pig prices that it is jokingly called the China Pig Index; as pork prices soared over 110 percent across the country, the CPI went up 4.5 percent in December.
The country ramped up its surveillance of ASF and increased its imports of pork significantly as well. Over one million pigs were culled since 2018 in China; in neighboring Vietnam, over six million pigs were culled.
The economic losses were estimated by Li Defa of the College of Animal Science and Technology at China Agricultural University to be more than $140 billion.
Now, as China moves to restock its pig herds, importing thousands of high-quality French breeding pigs by flights, the country reported fresh cases of the virus on Thursday, in the northwestern Gansu province.
A few days earlier, another outbreak was found in a truck transporting 83 piglets to Leshan city, Sichuan province. Another outbreak was detected in pigs illegally transported to the Inner Mongolia region, which killed 92 animals.
The illegal transportation of hogs, believed to have spread the virus further of late, is currently being investigated.
The virus is harmless to humans but at present has no cure in pigs. Researchers at the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute are at work on a vaccine, while scientists at Shandong Landsee Genetics are working on breeding ASF-resistant pigs.
Now Polish officials have confirmed that they too have an ASF outbreak sweeping through their pig populations.
On Monday it was reported that a farm in Poland containing around 10,000 pigs near the village of Więckowice near Poznań were infected. This marks the second time so far this year an outbreak of ASF on a commercial pig farm in Poland has occurred.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) information on ASF says:
“African swine fever is a highly contagious and deadly viral disease affecting both domestic and feral (wild) pigs in all age groups. ASF is not a threat to human health and cannot be transmitted from pigs to humans.”
Once the pig becomes infected ASF can result in death within as fast as one week after infection.
The Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida reports the first outbreak of ASF occurred in Kenya in 1921. The ASF virus is present in many sub-Saharan African countries.
The USDA reports the ASF virus is only transmittable between animals.
However, Chief State Sanitary Doctor Gennady Onishchenko head of the Russian Epidemiology Service has warned that this may not always be the case.
The doctor states that while ASF may currently only affect animals, the possibility that it may become dangerous to humans cannot be ruled out. At a 2013 press conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, he said viruses like ASF could always mutate and impact the health of humans.
“If we take into account the fact that pig physiology is very close to human physiology, and they suffer illness in almost the same way as we do, there is reason to believe that in the next round of mutation the virus can become dangerous to humans,” Onishchenko said.
As we continue to feed endless amounts of antibiotics to farmed animals in an effort to keep them from getting sick we are breeding the next pathogen that will become an unstoppable pandemic that jumps from non-human animals to humans creating another global crisis like we are currently experiencing.