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Stopping Pig Black Death – African Swine Fever

Protection through detection

Puja Daya

African swine fever, a transboundary animal disease, is the cause of death for millions of domestic and wild pigs around the world.  (Photo: L. Martinez/IAEA)

For many, looking back at 2018 might bring back memories of South Korea’s Winter Olympic Games or the British royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, but for pig farmers in China, the year was marked by a single event: the arrival of African swine fever (ASF). That year, the disease — once endemic to only sub-Saharan Africa — broke out among Chinese piggeries, resulting in the death or culling of over a quarter of the world’s domestic pig population. A year after its appearance, ASF was estimated to have directly cost China over a trillion yuan (US $141 billion) according to the dean of the College of Animal Science and Technology at China Agricultural University in Beijing, and caused the country’s pork prices to spike by 85 per cent.

While China, the world’s second largest economy, has been able to weather the ongoing ASF outbreak, not all countries are able to do so. The IAEA, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is working closely with China, as well as with Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam in Asia, and Burkina Faso, Mali, Namibia, Nigeria and Senegal in Africa, in using nuclear techniques to create early detection mechanisms for ASF and to control its spread — saving pigs and farmers’ livelihoods.

“If we can limit the spread of this disease, we can limit the culling of disease-ridden pigs, which has a huge negative economic impact on countries that rely heavily on livestock production and trade,” said Charles Euloge Lamien, Technical Animal Health Officer at the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. For the past 15 years, he’s been training experts to sample and accurately detect ASF in their countries.

In China, pork is a primary ingredient for traditional cuisine, and the rise in pork prices has led some consumers to seek cheaper alternatives in wild animals. In wet markets where these are sold, unknown animal diseases could jump from animals to humans. “Bringing ASF under control would also reduce the number of consumers resorting to eating wild animals, which are a haven for zoonotic diseases,” Lamien said.

ASF, a disease caused by the ASF virus (ASFV), originated in wild pigs but has since been transmitted to domestic ones. Secondary sources of transmission include ticks, contaminated meat products and slaughtered products. Although ASF is not a zoonotic disease, around 70 per cent of infectious diseases are, making stopping the spread of potential zoonoses an even higher priority.

Early detection leads to less destruction

With no vaccination or treatment available for ASF, early detection is essential in controlling it. “Enabling laboratories to detect ASF as soon as possible is the most efficient way to take appropriate measures in containing the virus before it spreads further within a country or even to new countries,” Lamien said. Nuclear techniques allow scientists to detect and trace where the virus originates and determine how it’s transmitted.

Since 2012, the FAO/IAEA Animal Production and Health Laboratory has been working on ASF, developing what’s called syndromic surveillance tools — the collection, analysis and interpretation of data to provide an early warning system for the disease — as well as characterizing the virus from different countries. There are currently 24 known variants of the ASFV. Understanding their different characteristics allows experts to determine how outbreaks of ASF are linked, if they have previously been detected in a country, and where they may have originated.

In 2019, the IAEA in partnership with the FAO helped survey at-risk Asian countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, Thailand and Viet Nam to detect the virus early enough to reduce the chances of new strains developing and to protect these countries’ pork industries. Lamien hopes to help other countries in the same way and is supporting their efforts to characterize ASFV from recent outbreaks.

The FAO/IAEA Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VETLAB) Network, which includes laboratories from countries in Africa and Asia, supports this work by sharing experiences and methodologies in using nuclear derived techniques to track and trace ASFV. Techniques such as enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), real-time PCR (see the infographic here) and molecular sequencing are used.

By detecting ASF-infected pigs early, scientists can separate them from the non-infected pigs and stop the disease from being transported over borders. This was the case in Indonesia in 2020.

“Following disease investigation and confirmation, local governments were able to ban the movement of affected pigs, pig products and contaminated material,” said Ni Luh Putu Indi Dharmayanti, Director of the Indonesian Research Center for Veterinary Science.

When a new type of virus is discovered, experts can analyse its genome to estimate the severity of the disease. For example, in 1961, ASF genotype I was discovered in Portugal and spread around Europe. 2007 saw a re-emergence of ASF in Europe with genotype II. Experience has shown that disease-endemic areas can be re-infected with new virus strains. With genotypes I and II being the most common variants detected outside of Africa, nuclear techniques allow for their quick detection and help stop both transmission of the disease and new variants from developing.


September, 2021
Vol. 62-3

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