Are UK's pigs about to be wiped out by African Swine Fever?

The UK is battling to keep out a highly contagious deadly pig virus that could ‘annihilate’ the country’s pork industry.

Germany has today confirmed its first case of ‘African Swine Fever’ amid fears the disease is spreading rapidly around Europe. 

Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner said on Thursday a case in a wild boar has been detected in the eastern state of Brandenburg.

The carcass of the boar was found near the German-Polish border. A sample was taken for tests at the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut laboratory and the positive result was confirmed. 

There are now fears the virus, which has wiped out half of China’s pigs either through culling or infection, will now spread to neighbouring countries and could end up in the UK.

Germany had gone to extreme measures including erecting electric fences to try to keep the virus out after cases were found in wild boars just over the border in Poland in the past few months. Cases have also been recently confirmed in wild boars in around 10 other European countries.

Ms Kloeckner said, now the virus has reached the country, the authorities will be imposing strict measures to prevent the disease spreading.

ASF is not dangerous to humans but is fatal to pigs. In other countries that have seen outbreaks, wild boars, and any farmed pigs they have come into contact with, have had to be culled. 

The UK is thought to be less at risk from an outbreak because of its very low wild boar population and, being an island nation, it’s far harder for cases to cross borders.

If an outbreak was to take place it would almost certainly be caused by humans bringing infected products into the country, according to Zoe Davies, the Chief Executive of the National Pig Association.

She told that if the virus was to reach UK shores, it could bring a crisis in British farming not seen since the Foot and Mouth disease outbreak in 2001.

‘It would annihilate our market, there’s no doubt it would have a very significant impact. It’s a horrible disease and no one wants to see our pigs suffer,’ she said.

‘We will do everything we can to keep it out of the country. We are hoping and praying it is enough. Until there is a vaccine, a potential outbreak here will always be a big concern.’

Just before coronavirus hit, the UK Government had started an ASF awareness raising campaign at airports and seaports to try to stop the spread.

Millions of pigs have died or been culled due to the outbreak in China and other Asian countries.

China has also imposed import bans on pork from countries where it has been discovered.

Ms Davies said all eyes will now be on China to see how they react to the confirmed case in Germany. They could choose to refuse to take any products at all, now the virus is in the country.

This would, according to Ms Davies, lead to a big influx in cheap German goods into countries like the UK, undercutting the prices of local farmers.

Germany exported some 158,000 tonnes of pork, worth €424 million, to China between January and April 2020, double the tonnage in the same time in 2019, the country’s national statistics office said.

Sales were ironically fuelled by China’s increased import demand because the disease has devastated pig herds domestically.

Earlier this year experts warned 2020 could see an ‘unstoppable’ outbreak of ASF, which kills almost 100% of the animals it infects. 

By May, the number of deaths in 2020 had already nearly matched the 100,000 recorded last year. 

With global attention distracted by the human coronavirus pandemic, it was feared that countries are not focusing enough on halting the spread.

Dirk Pfeiffer, a professor of veterinary sciences at City University in Hong Kong, and a leading expert on ASF, told the Guardian it was ‘much stronger’ than Covid-19 because it ‘can survive in the environment or processed meat for weeks and months.’

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