African swine fever decimating pig populations in China—biotech can help

african swine flue, african swine fever

African swine fever (ASF) is seeing a resurgence in China, decimating pig populations and leading to higher prices for pork. Farmers in China often do not report outbreaks of ASF to authorities, making it difficult to track the extent of the virus’ spread. Recent cases have also been detected in Germany and the Philippines. The U.S. has avoided cases of ASF due to strong biosecurity measures, including the establishment of an African Swine Fever Protection Zone.

ASF has caused pork prices to yo-yo in China, with decreased demand and then decreased supply. Prices are soon expected to skyrocket due to the level at which China has had to slaughter its commercial pig populations.

A unique virus

ASF stands out as a disease in a few ways. For one, it can thrive undetected in uncooked meat, meaning it can be transported long distances after being processed. Another distinction is its ability to thrive in both wild and domesticated swine. It is highly contagious among swine populations, though it poses no threat to humans.

Experts believe that extreme biosecurity measures are needed to keep ASF from spreading through pig farms. There is speculation as to whether the virus is airborne, but Dr. Arkin Wu of Pipestone Nutrition and Riverstone Farms in China conveyed in a webinar, “Technically it’s not an airborne virus, but the only farm that never got ASF in the past three years used air filters.” DNA and RNA from the virus can persist on human skin even after multiple washes.

Biotech offers effective solutions

Biotech innovations have allowed for gene editing that can keep pigs from getting diseases, including Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS). The pigs are essentially identical to non-gene-edited pigs, with the benefit of not suffering from PRRS. Biotechnologies to address health and environmental issues in the agriculture industry are also on the rise. An animal feed additive aimed at reducing methane emissions from ruminants was recently developed by Genus PLC.

Gene editing for swine to prevent them from being susceptible to ASF has been explored by USDA scientists at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York. They found they could weaken the virus by deleting a gene from a highly infectious strain of ASF and subsequently make a vaccine. Now, they are cooperating with a company in Vietnam to produce the vaccine.

Headway is also being made through a variety of studies that examine how to battle the virus’ many strains. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is working on vaccine trials using live attenuated strains. Such vaccines have shown 60-100% effectiveness in challenging the virus. The University of Minnesota has also successfully validated a surrogate virus to work with to develop mitigation strategies. 

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