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Swine fever could wipe out quarter of all pigs

October 31, 2019

The president of the World Organization for Animal Health has called it the "biggest threat to any commercial livestock of our generation." The global price of pork and pig-based products is expected to skyrocket.

A group of pigs
Image: picture-alliance/imagechina/Y. Shuiling

Scientists say around a quarter of all the world's pigs could die of swine fever, a complex disease they say is spreading rapidly in the era of globalization.

The president of the World Organization for Animal Health made the announcement on Thursday, saying that authorities are struggling to handle the spread of African swine fever. 

Dr Mark Schipp said a steep drop in the world's pig population could result in possible food shortages and high pork prices.

He also warned of potential shortfalls in a number of products made from pigs including heparin, which is used as a blood-thinner for humans.

"I don't think the species will be lost, but it's the biggest threat to the commercial raising of pigs we've ever seen," Schipp said. 

Originating in South Africa, the disease spread by contact among pigs through contaminated fodder and by ticks, through to Europe in the 1960s. The virus resurfaced in western Europe from wild pigs transferred into Belgium forests for hunting purposes. 

In the past year, swine fever quickly spread from China to Mongolia, the Korean Peninsula, Southeast Asia and East Timor with several hundred cases reported. 

While fatal to pigs, the disease poses no known threat to humans. 

Read more: Sieren's China: Swine fever also has Europe over a pork barrel

China's pork crisis

China hosts half of the global pig population and consumes two-thirds of the world's pork. There, the price of pork has almost doubled from a year ago. China has destroyed around 1.2 million pigs since August 2018 in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Consequently, China and other countries with swine fever cases have begun purchasing pork abroad, pushing up global pork prices.

"There are some shortages in some countries, and there's been some substitutions using other sources of protein, which is driving up the prices of other proteins," explained Schipp.

Read more: Opinion: Ebola in Conco - incompetence, mistrust and greed

Effects of globalization 

Schipp said the rapid spread of African swine fever reveals a lot not only about the global movement of pork and of people but also the impacts of tariffs and trade barriers. He argued that such barriers and quality checks motivate people to seek out riskier sources. 

"Those casing products move through multiple countries ... They're cleaned in one, graded in another, sorted in another, partially treated in another, and finally treated in a fourth of fifth country. They've very hard to trace, through so many countries."

While progress had been made in uncovering a vaccine, Schipp said the virus is very large and complex in structure, which poses a serious challenge in developing an effective vaccine.

mvb/rt (AP, Reuters)

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