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October 25, 2021


China, African swine fever and vaccines: A third quarter update

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China's swine and pork industries seem closer to put its traumatising experience with African swine fever (ASF) behind.


At the end of June 2021, the country's herd of 439 million pigs was 99.4% of its level at the end of 2017, while its sow herd of 45.64 million head was 102% of the level at end of 2017, according to Zeng Yande, head of development and planning under China's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, as reported by Reuters in July.


However, reservations linger as to whether the threat of ASF in the country has significantly diminished to the point that it is not much an issue as before.

China reported 12 ASF cases this year, a big drop from 105 in 2018. Even then, the "control and prevention situation" with the disease remained "complicated," said Yande's colleague, Xin Guochang, an official at the husbandry bureau.


The chief worry is dealing with ASF's resurgence. Outside China, the Philippines recently reported areas previously cleared of the disease now seeing their return. The country's agriculture secretary, William Dar blamed this development on people "selling infected meat" for driving the spread of ASF.


Meanwhile, the use of possibly millions of unregulated vaccines in China could lead to the creation of new, virulent ASF strains, Edgar Wayne Johnson, a consultant with Enable Ag-Tech Consulting in Beijing, told Fortune in July.


New variants have been confirmed early this year, and might have spread via the employment of unlicensed vaccines, Australian research institute Future Directions International noted in March. The culling of seven to eight million pigs in the preceding months were linked to these variants.


Adding to the doubts over China's complete recovery from ASF was also the view that Chinese authorities are less-than-honest with revealing the actual situation with the disease.


Some industry experts think the country's ASF infection numbers may have been under-reported to present a more positive picture. Johnson of Enable Ag-Tech Consulting highlighted possible missed cases as "There are still pigs going to the slaughterhouse every day with ASF."


Furthermore, despite Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs' claim that the recovery of China's swine herd had exceeded expectations, "The reported production numbers do not always reflect reality, however, as provincial governments often report larger production quantities to meet central government targets," Future Directions International stated.


The general consensus seems to be that the Chinese swine/pork industry's recovery from ASF is making headway, but the disease is still a salient challenge that might again cause serious headaches for industry players.


Elsewhere globally — And a new ASF vaccine coming soon?


The United States had so far to keep ASF from its territories, but recent outbreaks in Haiti and the Dominican Republic have jolted the country into action.


"(ASF) has never been found in the United States – and we want to keep it that way," said the United Stated Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service on its website.


On September 29, USDA pledged up to US$500 million to prevent the spread of ASF, having already spent about US$400,000 to help the Dominican Republic responded to the disease. An ASF outbreak in the US can cut pork exports and pig prices, impacting rural farmers and major meat companies.


In Southeast Asia, Vietnam's pork production is making fast progress to recovery. However, the domestic swine industry "has not reached the pre-ASF level, as ongoing challenges with ASF remain," stated a May report by USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service Global Agricultural Information Network (GAIN).


As Xinhua reported on September 18, ASF was confirmed in three communes of Que Phong district in the central Nghe An province, and 118 pigs were culled in the past 10 days. Notwithstanding recurring outbreaks, most of these events in Vietnam are sporadic, small-scale and can be easily controlled.


On the medicinal front, USDA announced in September the development of a  recombinant experimental vaccine candidate that can induce protection against Vietnamese ASF virus. Known as ASFV-G-ΔI177L, this vaccine was engineered by deleting the I177L gene from the genome of the ASFv Georgia strain, effectively protecting pigs from the parental virus. Approval had been given to start field trials in Vietnam.


Additionally, earlier this year,  International Livestock Research Institute, which is based in Nairobi, Kenya, began testing ten ASF vaccine candidates, which were developed using the CRISPR gene-editing technology.


The situation in other ASF-impacted countries can reach a turning point for the better once an effective vaccine reaches the market.


Till then, as some nations claimed a degree of recovery from the disease, uncertainty continues to hang over the swine and pork sectors.


As long as ASF persists, letting one's guard down could set the industry back to the severity of earlier outbreaks. 


- Terry Tan / eFeedLink

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