Daily Management Review

African swine fever at Europe’s borders: time for an embargo?


As experts warned, the international outbreak of hemorrhagic fever (African swine fever – ASF) is devasting livestock populations in China and other parts of Asia. When cases of infection appeared last year, analysts predicted that China would be unable to control the spread, and that by the time it reached parts of South-East Asia the economic costs would be enormous. Unfortunately, they were right.

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ASF is a highly-contagious fatal disease contracted by pigs. Although harmless to people, the virus can survive in meat products and on surfaces for weeks or even months. It also has a 90% mortality rate for the pigs that contract it. Dr. François Roger, an epidemiologist with CIRAD, warned in an interview in 2018 that "If African swine fever were to become established, the Chinese pig population would be an unprecedented reservoir" from which to spread.

A year on, Reuters reported recently that as many as half of China’s breeding pigs, have either died from African swine fever or have been slaughtered due to the disease, twice as many as officially acknowledged by the Chinese government. When it is understood that China accounts for more than half the global pig population, the situation becomes all the more staggering. Some analysts believe that 200 million heads, or a quarter of the world’s pig population, will be gone by the end of the year.

“Since it was discovered in East Africa at the start of the 20th century, ASF has spread throughout the domestic pig population in sub-Saharan Africa. It has spread beyond the continent twice, reaching Europe, Brazil and several West Indian countries in the late 1950s,” Dr. Roger explained.

Due to the highly contagious nature of the disease, and the total absence of a viable vaccine, ASF has spread, likely from Russia, to China, as well as the Baltic states in Europe. The risk to European pig populations is grave. The economic ramifications for the EU, although evidently significant, are not yet known.

The greatest concern at present in Europe is that the virus, if it establishes a foothold, will be extremely difficult to eradicate as it is infecting wild boar as well. In certain regions of Europe, wild boar populations are sufficiently large to make for persistent problems. The animals tend to flee and hide when attempts at culling are made, as such their populations are notoriously difficult to manage. As a result, the probability that the animals will spread or reignite outbreaks is of serious concern.

Dr. Linda Dixon of the Pirbright Institute in London is one of the leading experts on African swine fever. Speaking on BBC Radio’s ‘Science in Action’, she made clear that in Europe we should be extremely vigilant.

Best estimates for research resulting in a vaccine that will function in the field are eight to ten years, Dr. Dixon explained. For this reason, the only available recourse for outbreaks is slaughtering infected animals and disinfecting livestock sites.

Alongside the direct potential health and economic damage that a widespread European outbreak will cause, the situation in the China will almost certainly result in disruptive market conditions and therefore further economic harm in Europe.

Supporting the colossal pig farm industry in China are the numerous industries providing everything from soy beans for feed to veterinary nutritional supplements. The devasted pig population in China is likely to create a massive oversupply of these products.

As Chinese companies discount their products to ensure that they can make sales internationally, their competitors in Europe are likely to have their business harmed. This could be extremely problematic for the European agricultural market.

Verticals such as cattle and other livestock-dependent industries are likely to be hit by the effects of the Chinese attempts at diversification over the next few years as well, as the country moves away from pork.

If Europe is to be protected from the direct and indirect consequences of the disease, one action is vital: an embargo of all products relating to the affected industries should be enacted to protect local European suppliers and producers.

This will protect the related markets financially. It will also prevent the continued spread of the virus, which can survive for unusually long periods of time in animal products, and even simply on items coming into contact with infected animals.

Worryingly, the response in Europe has lacked urgency. Not only has there been insufficient media coverage on the subject, institutional mobilization has been weak, likely as a result of other subjects competing for attention, such as Brexit and the European Commission’s transitional activity.

Whatever the reasons, the risks of ASF have been downplayed and concern for the economic cost has been almost absent. However, if little is done to defend the European market from the disease, it is highly likely that an outbreak will be even more catastrophic than the one presently devasting China.