DES MOINES, Iowa – The list of African swine fever (ASF) positive countries is growing. With South Korea and the island nation of Timor-Leste in the Philippines reporting positive for ASF in September, the disease has spread to 10 countries in Southeast Asia.
“We continue to see more countries report that they're positive and we can continue to see advancement of the virus in those countries where it's already at,” said Dave Pyburn, vice president of science and technology with the National Pork Board and leader of their ASF efforts.
There is a notable difference in how the virus is spreading throughout Asia versus Eastern Europe.
In Europe, Pyburn describes the spread as a slow burn with the virus being carried on hoof. Feral hogs and small, outdoor swine operations are the main form of transport for the virus. Since these pigs are not traveling hundreds of miles each day, the virus is just slowly spreading and expanding in the region.
It has been that way since 2007 when the virus first broke in the Republic of Georgia.
“When you look at Asia, the difference there is that the movement is in a couple of ways on tires: it’s people that are moving live, infected pigs and it's also people that are moving infected products,” said Pyburn.
Many of these infected products end up with scrapes that are fed to other pigs, spreading the virus that way.
All these countries in Asia are working to control the virus as best they can. The trouble is they lack the infrastructure, the government programs and the industry organizations that are necessary to gain control over the spread.
The island of Timor-Leste is an example of how difficult it is to control the spread via people. As an island, it is extremely unlikely a wild hog brought the virus in. They only way in would have been a person carrying infected pork or pork products that later came in contact with swine on the island.
“Timor-Leste is just off the coast of Australia, like 600 kilometers away,” he said. “That's a big warning shot for Australia there.”
It is really a warning for all the nations of the world. The miles between countries is less significant when easy access to air travel has made the world a much smaller place.
“In no way do we globally we have control of this virus, but we just got to keep it out of this hemisphere and for sure keep it out of the United States,” he said.
The United States Customs and Border Protections (CBP) and USDA have been taking steps to increase airport security with a focus on ASF.
New inspectors and new inspector beagles have been approved and are in the works to be added.
The inspector beagles are trained to literally sniff out pork products being brought into the country illegally – pork that could be carrying the ASF virus.
“There's a commitment to 60 new beagles for inspection and that's going to happen over a five-year period,” Pyburn said. “They have gotten some new beagles at the time, but it's not going to be 60 all in one lump sum.”
It is a simple matter of logistics. It takes time to breed and raise the dogs. Then they need to be trained and handlers also need to be trained. The goal is to have more beagles at the airports, but both the dog and the officer with the dog need to be properly and effectively trained.
In October, the National Pork Board will be meeting with USDA to get a better understanding of how border security against foreign animal diseases has been increased. The goal of that meeting is to develop metrics that are measurable and set goals that are attainable.
“There's actually legislation out there, too, that calls for CBP to get up to full staffing on inspectors, which is hundreds of more inspectors,” he said. “If that were to happen, that would quickly bolster our protections at our airports and our seaports.”
Always remember, with ASF, this is not a human health risk. It is a disease of pigs, not people.
The major concern with the disease is that it kills nearly every pig it infects, and that the U.S. would no longer be able to participate in the global hog market. The economic impacts to agriculture and the country would be devastating.