African Swine Fever: The Deadly Virus Killing All Pigs

About a quarter of the global pig population could die from the African swine fever virus (from the Asfarviridae family). The alarm comes from the World Organization for Animal Health, formerly known as the Office International des Epizooties, OIE. This international organisation is important because it coordinates the control of the spread of animal diseases.

The catastrophic predictions are mainly due to the rapid spread of the disease in China. Just think that half of the world’s pig population is reared here. Moreover, since the outbreak of the epidemic in 2018, at least 100 million pigs have died. This was either because they were infected with the virus or because they were slaughtered in an attempt to contain its spread.

African Swine Fever: A Silent Killer

African swine fever is a lethal haemorrhagic fever for pigs, wild boars and feral pigs. However, there is no zoonosis, so humans cannot contract this disease. Farmed pigs may contract it through contact with infected pigs – especially from wild ones. Or they could ingest contaminated and poorly isolated meat leftovers or be bitten by infected ticks.

This type of fever is also widespread in other Asian countries, such as Vietnam, Mongolia and South Korea. Unfortunately, the disease has also been able to reach Europe from South Africa since the 1960s. In particular, the last outbreak took place in Eastern Europe and started in 2014.

The Consequences

At the moment there is no vaccine and the only solution is to kill contaminated animals. That is why the economic impact in countries where the disease is widespread – and not only in modern globalized markets – is considerable. As a result of increased demand for pork in China, world prices for this food (and other animal proteins required to replace it) have risen sharply. According to Mark Schipp, President of the OIE, the crisis in the sector could also affect the pharmaceutical industry. The mucous membrane of the pig’s intestine is used to make heparin, a very common anticoagulant drug.

At the moment there is no immediate solution for this problem. According to the experts, the situation after the acute phase may however remain endemic. The virus has a complex structure, with a double coating and different ways of attacking cells. Antibodies directed at individual fragments of its protection are not sufficient to keep it away. An important step towards the development of a vaccine has been the recent discovery of the 3D structure of the pathogen. However, there is still a long way to go.

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