The last few months have seen global headlines dominated by coronavirus. Our day-to-day has become governed by the constant threat of a deadly virus that has claimed the lives of too many people. However, another virus is also causing considerable impact and devastating livelihoods. While it does not impact humans, pigs around the world are succumbing to African Swine Flu (ASF) by their thousands and the spread of the disease is having dramatic impacts on small and large producers alike, threatening the future of pork production.

African Swine Flu (ASF) spreads quickly through pigs and hogs, causing a high fever, lameness, vomiting and internal bleeding, resulting in death within ten days. It is spread when a pig is in contact with an infected animal – dead or alive. Worse still, apparel, knives and vehicles can also be vectors for the virus, which can survive on hard surfaces for weeks and months. The impact of this is that the virus can travel significant distances rapidly, making it more challenging to stop. As with COVID-19, there is currently no vaccine against the virus but scientists around the world are racing to produce one. In fact, there was a significant breakthrough in the ASF vaccine in the Pirbright Institute in May. However, despite scientific progress, ASF mortality rates still stand, at least, at 90%, which is astronomically high, especially when compared to the estimated mortality rate of coronavirus in the UK which is below 1%. To date, 60 million pigs are estimated to have died as a result of the outbreak, whether through infection or culling, although non-official figures put the number much higher at 200 million animals.

Just as happened with COVID-19, the outbreak started in China. China produces 47% of the world’s pork and the majority of the producers are small-scale subsistence farmers, which is key to explaining why the disease spread so quickly. The lack of biosecurity measures meant that the virus spread uncontrolled. Subsistence farmers are not required to follow the same Government-mandated health and safety standards that large-scale producers follow. Additionally, they lacked the capital to fence their properties effectively or buy more expensive uncontaminated feed or PPE such as gloves and disinfectants. However, wild boars are also key to understanding how ASF spread. These animals are recognised as potent ‘super-spreaders’ and are the likely culprit for ASF entering South Korea last September. Seemingly, the boars managed to cross the border from North Korea despite its infamous border protections, military personnel and precarious terrain.

The likely origin of the virus is similar in the cases of COVID-19 and ASF. The transmission from animal to human in the case of the coronavirus is recognised to be the now-infamous ‘wet markets’ through Asia and Africa. In the case of ASF, the outbreak was likely in a large-scale industrial livestock unit, where pigs were crowded together in unsanitary and inhumane conditions. However, the root cause remains the same: negligent animal welfare standards and a disregard for the life of animals that we rely on for food, created the perfect conditions for these virus outbreaks. Through the maltreatment of animals, the risk of contamination increased and pathogens spread.

Just as with COVID-19, the Chinese Government was unable to contain ASF. Unlike coronavirus, it was not transmitted from person-to-person but via processed pork products which were shipped from country to country until the outbreak reached epidemic proportions. Timothée Vergne, an associate professor of veterinary public health at the National Veterinary School of Toulouse, France, expects to see the 2020 figures significantly eclipse that of 2019. Consequently, it’s only a matter of time before it reaches the UK.

So how do we tackle it? In the absence of a vaccine, the only hope is better sanitation standards and global cooperation. Just as with COVID-19, ‘the only available course is global coordinated actions at all levels – this includes accelerating vaccine research, increasing biosecurity and surveillance, and enforcing policies for safe trade and cross-border movement,’ according to the FAO. However, ‘tackling ASF in a globally coordinated way, where all countries can benefit from stronger multi-sectoral support, will require as much transparency and openness as possible,’ which might prove tricky given the increasing geopolitical tensions between America and China.

Ultimately, until better animal welfare standards are adopted across the world, these disease outbreaks will continue. Industrial livestock farming and ‘wet markets’ create the conditions for these viruses to emerge and spread unabated. Cramped conditions, excess waste and poor ventilation abet these outbreaks. In response to the coronavirus, China temporarily banned wildlife markets and Wuhan has declared itself as wildlife sanctuary city. There have been calls to ban these markets permanently. However, as welcome as a ban on wet markets would be, the industrial production of meat needs to be addressed too. Instead of relying on a constant stream of prophylactic antibiotics to prevent diseases from spreading animal-to-animal, we need to re-evaluate our food systems and transition to more sustainable production methods that place animal welfare at its core. Until we do, history is doomed to be repeated.

Photograph: Mark Robinson

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