Long before the world became aware of the novel coronavirus that now has most people in the United States staying home, the pork industry was watching with fear as a different virus decimated the pig population in China.
African swine fever does not infect or harm humans, but it is deadly to pigs and since August 2018, estimates are that it has cut China's swine herd in half. It has spread to other countries in Asia and is also infecting pigs in several European countries.
A new study from Iowa State University and BarnTools, which calls itself "a digital biosecurity platform company," estimates an outbreak of African swine fever in this country could cost at least $14 billion over two years and as much as $50 billion over 10 years.
Iowa State University economist Dermot Hayes, one of the study's authors, says the difference in the estimates comes from whether the virus is kept to the wild boar population or if it gets into the domestic pork supply.
Identification of the disease would immediately close export markets, Hayes says, but if the industry can show that the pork production system wasn't infected, those markets might reopen within a couple of years. Conversely, if it's the domestic pig population that's infected, the United States would need to drastically reduce its production.
"In either case, the take home for me is we need to keep this disease out of the country," Hayes says, "and it's worth spending a lot of money to do that."
To that end, the pork industry has implemented biosecurity measures to keep any pathogens out of barns, including a Secure Pork Supply plan and technology to track the movement of pigs, people, trucks and carcasses. Hayes says the general public can understand better now what that might look like because of watching the spread of COVID-19.
"The circumstances are almost identical," he says. "We have pigs out there that may be infecting other pigs, but we don't know it. But once the infection becomes clearer we would like to be able to trace that pig's movement to find all the other pigs they were in contact with."
Hayes and his collaborators wrote a report in 2011 about a hypothetical foreign animal disease outbreak that he says was similarly alarming and prompted changes.
"It encouraged (the) U.S. customs authority to increase the monitoring of people coming in internationally," he says. "Prior to that, we would have planes coming in with uncooked meat and that was a concern back then."
He says now the combination of his work on the economic impact of an outbreak and research that shows the African swine fever virus can potentially survive in certain media for the duration of the trip from China to the United States, suggest it may be time to stop importing some of those materials.
"I'm not an expert on the products we import," Hayes says, "but it does seem to me common sense would suggest that we hold off on importing pet food and organic soybean meal cake from China until this disease abates."
Last fall, Iowa participated in a multi-state, joint state-federal disaster simulation to examine preparedness for an African swine fever outbreak. Today, the state emergency operations center is busy managing the COVID-19 outbreak.
Veterinary labs that would be key players in identifying the pig pathogen have been lending a hand to diagnostic work for the human disease outbreak, but in an interview with Iowa Public Radio, one official from Oklahoma State University said the animal labs would continue to prioritize animal health and would not overextend their support at the expense of nabbing a foreign animal disease.
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