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China faces long struggle to tackle African swine fever, OIE says

Virus already spread to nearly all Chinese regions

Paris | Reuters — It will take years for China to contain the deadly African swine fever virus that has spread throughout the country, which is the world’s biggest pork producer, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) said on Tuesday.

China has been struggling to control the epidemic, which some analysts predict could see up to 200 million pigs die or be culled this year, causing a huge shortage of pork locally and have economic impact on the meat and feed industry globally.

Outbreaks of the disease, which is not harmful to humans, has already been reported in almost every region of mainland China.

“China is going to deal with this African swine fever for many years to come,” OIE deputy director general Matthew Stone told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of the 87th general assembly of the Paris-based organization.

Beijing has said its breeding herd is 22 per cent smaller than this time last year, but many in the industry say the impact of the disease could be much greater.

African swine fever has spread to Vietnam, Cambodia and Mongolia and Stone said there was a significant danger that the virus could reach other Asian countries in the coming months.

“The situation is going to continue to evolve in Asia because we know there is significant contamination of the meat and meat products supply chain and practices such as garbage feeding that may not be appropriately regulated,” Stone said.

Vietnam already culled 1.7 million pigs to tackle an outbreak of the disease, or five per cent of the country’s herd.

“It is an enormous challenge for some of these countries in Asia to transform their farming systems into higher biosecurity systems but that’s the imperative,” he said.

The spread of African swine fever has not only damaged the Asian pig population and the pigmeat market in China, but also hit the international pork market and animal feed markets like soybean.

“So all of those impacts are going to continue to provide a great deal of market uncertainty which has radiating effects broader than just the pig industry sector,” Stone said.

African swine fever kills almost all pigs infected and the virus can last for weeks in contaminated materials, allowing it to travel over long distances.

“We are going to live with African swine fever for many years,” Stone said. “This is why the long-term focus on research and development and the short- and mid-term focus on improved biosecurity and veterinary services’ capacity to respond is absolutely imperative.”

On Tuesday, the OIE launched a global initiative, to be co-ordinated with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, to try to keep the disease in check.

“The objective is to control the disease, strengthen countries’ prevention and preparation efforts, and minimize the adverse effects on animal health, animal welfare and international trade,” the OIE said in a statement.

The disease currently has no cure but Chinese state media said on Friday that China would start working on clinical trials of a vaccine.

Scientific publications suggest breakthroughs on vaccines are close but it could take a long time to take a vaccine from a laboratory into the field due to regulatory authorization processes, Stone said.

— Reporting for Reuters by Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris.

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