Major bacon shortages expected as a result of 'unstoppable' African swine fever

Another pandemic affecting pigs is likely to be even more devastating than last year, scientists have warned. 

The highly contagious African swine fever (ASF) virus is ‘unrelenting’ in its spread and kills almost 100% of the animals it infects – despite being in circulation for nearly a century. With much of the scientific world focussed on the coronavirus pandemic, experts are warning that many countries are not paying attention to stopping ASF.

The disease is widely expected to push up the price of pork products, like bacon and sausages, and could lead to shortages.

Andriy Rozstalnyy, an animal health officer at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, told The Guardian: ‘The continuing new ASF outbreaks – which are reported through official The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) notifications, as well as picked up informally through media, and tracked through our emergency prevention system – confirm the ever-larger number of affected animals and the unrelenting spread of the disease’.

There is particular concern around outbreaks China, Eastern Europe, the Philippines and Vietnam. 

Another leading expert, Dirk Pfeiffer, a professor of veterinary sciences at City University in Hong Kong, told the paper the virus was almost ‘unstoppable’. He said: ‘The ASF virus is a much “stronger” virus [than Covid-19], in that it can survive in the environment or processed meat for weeks and months.’

Professor Pfeiffer also claimed that the disease could be benefitting some meat companies, adding: ‘The benefit that the ASF epidemic has had for the financial performance of the mega pig producers in China adds another interesting dimension to the story.

‘They have actually learned to “live” with the disease in the country, and benefit enormously from the high pork price.’

There is no vaccine for the illness, which reached China in late 2018, before a huge number of deaths the following year.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation put the official count at around 1.1 million pigs culled in 2019. But Rabobank have estimated that the true number could be multiples higher – suggesting some 40% of the country’s 360 million pig population could have been lost.

And this year there are fears that without more focus on a vaccine, transparency over outbreaks and better bio-security, the number of deaths could be even higher. 

OIE stats suggest that global ASF numbers at the end of April are around the same level or already above levels for all of 2019. Officially, deaths are above 100,000 while 5.4 million have been culled.

The disease has also been detected in various parts of Asia late last year, and in India last month, while there has also been an outbreak among wild boar in Belgium.

But there is serious unease in other parts of the world that is could spread to other countries.

Zoe Davies, chief executive of the UK’s National Pig Association, told the Guardian. ‘A lot of it is about just a chance event.

‘I believe it is here already. It’s just whether that chance event would happen.’

ASF is not believed to affect humans. 

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