The pig pandemic is here

Don’t we have enough bad news? There’s always something slipping its way into our nightmares, and this one is the African Swine Fever sweeping across Asia.

It is being described as the biggest animal disease outbreak the world has ever seen. Its impacts are already profound in Asia and beyond, with increased export demand certain to support pork prices for the foreseeable future. There will be longer-term implications of Asia’s African swine fever (ASF) outbreak, too, concerning the production and consumption of pork, some of which are already becoming apparent.

Nice to know pork prices will be propped up by the ongoing devastation. But read the rest: a quarter of the world’s pig population faces imminent death. And it’s spreading!

Official figures from China show the national pig herd had declined by 32% year-on-year by July, with an estimated 100 million pigs lost already. While some of the losses will be directly or indirectly linked to the disease itself, the reduction is also being heavily driven by vast numbers of producers choosing to slaughter their herds and get out of pigs before the virus gets to them.

Rabobank is forecasting that, by the end of the year, China’s pig herd will have halved. Given that it numbered 700 million and accounted for half the world’s pigs before ASF struck in August 2018, the damage the virus is causing is plain for all to see.

And that is just China. ASF is continuing to spread across Asia at a worrying rate, confirmed in September for the first time in South Korea, where six cases were confirmed within two weeks, and the Philippines, where 12 cases were recorded in one area in a short time.

In Vietnam, infected soon after China, the virus has reached all 63 provinces and around 5 million pigs have been killed. Rabobank forecasts a 15-20% reduction in pork production in Vietnam this year.

An industry comprising millions of, often remote, ‘backyard’ farmers, with little concept of biosecurity was always going to be easy prey for a virus that can travel and survive in tiny quantities for a long time on animals, people, clothes, vehicles and equipment. It also became clear at an early stage that the virus had become embedded in the pig feed chain and was being spread via swill feeding. It is also in the human pork supply chain, helping its spread around the continent.

It hasn’t yet affected the American midwest (Hello, Iowa! I hear you’re a major pork producer?) or Europe, but oh boy, imagine the chaos if it did. I hope our understanding of biosecurity is more robust than that of Chinese farmers, but I have my suspicions that no, our local swine farms are not at all constrained by science. Capitalism, baby!


  1. Arkady says

    I work on vaccines for ‘normal’ pig diseases, and the numbers are still pretty terrifying. For the USA and parts of Canada, it’s cheaper to move pigs to where the feed is than to move feed to pigs, so in 2017 55 million pigs were moved across state lines (5 million in 1980 for comparison). Once a herd size reaches ~3000 pigs, herd immunity is no longer achievable against the likes of swine influenza, with annual population turnover in a herd at 250% (50% in breeding herds). In US farms it’s considered normal to have multiple serotypes of Streptococcus suis on one farm and 10 are common across the country. In Europe you mostly get one or two serotypes and across the continent, mostly serotypes 2 and 9, which makes picking vaccine targets easier.

  2. raven says

    There is nothing new about farm animal pandemics.
    We’ve defeated farm animal pandemics many time before.
    The last one of note for the world was the avian flu H5N1 epidemic of 1997.
    The world ended up slaughtering hundreds of millions of chickens to stop this outbreak.
    It was not a good time to be a chicken.

    That being said, each outbreak and virus is unique.
    It’s likely that this pandemic will be defeated as well.
    But we don’t know how, when, or what the cost will be yet.
    Since pork is a major food source in China, their population is not going to be happy paying a lot more for scarce pork.

  3. raven says

    I work on vaccines for ‘normal’ pig diseases, …

    That seems to be a major problem with African Swine Fever.
    No vaccine, as of yet.

    Scientists Race to Build Vaccine for African Swine Fever | The … › news-opinion › scientists-race-to-build-vac…
    Jun 24, 2019 – Scientists Race to Build Vaccine for African Swine Fever …
    “It effectively wipes out the immune system so there’s not an effective response,”

    This looks a little bit like HIV, which also wipes out the immune system and there is still no vaccine either.

    I was going to look this up, but since you are here, what do you know about progress developing a vaccine for African Swine Fever?
    This would go a long ways towards controlling this pandemic.

  4. mnb0 says

    “imagine the chaos if it did”
    On the positive side it would help to solve the Dutch ammonia crisis, which demands the Dutch livestock being reduced with at least 50%.

  5. lumipuna says


    blockquote>It already is in Europe, mainly the northeast and is spreading. There are quick measures taken when detected.



    At least in Estonia there’s been (on local scale) major damage to pig farming, and a constant battle to contain the spread of the disease, especially in native wild boars. if your area has wild boars (or, say, 30-50 feral hogs) and they commonly have the disease, it’ll take a lot more biosecurity work to prevent breakouts in your pork system.

  6. lumipuna says

    Actually, when I saw the title of this post, I thought, “Fuck, they found it in North America now”.

    As it is, it’s good to spread awareness before that happens. US Midwestern farmers are already screwed enough.

  7. unclefrogy says

    well one thing I think would be a safe bet, the pricce of pork is going to go up for everyone
    uncle frogy

  8. blf says

    From EFSA (European Food Safety Authority):

    African swine fever is a viral disease of pigs and wild boar that is usually deadly. There are neither vaccines nor cures. For this reason, it has serious socio-economic consequences in affected countries. Humans are not susceptible to the disease.


    From Russia and Belarus, the disease spread to the European Union. Lithuania reported cases of African swine fever in wild boar for the first time in January 2014. Poland followed in February 2014 and Latvia and Estonia in June and September of the same year.

    Most outbreaks occurred in small farms and were contained relatively quickly. The disease is still spreading locally among wild boar, where containment is more difficult.

    In a linked-to document at the link, EFSA notes “ASF is very resistant to inactivation even under harsh environmental conditions. Some species of soft ticks have proved to be ASF virus reservoirs and vectors.” There is also a video at the link.

  9. Arkady says

    I’m afraid I don’t know much about ASFV, perils of compartmentalising too much in science (most of my reading is bacterial glycobiology). A brief search found that the Pirbright Institute (UK animal disease research lab, has the high containment facilities needed for ASFV and the likes of foot-and-mouth disease) has been working on it since 1963 with a couple of candidate vaccines, one attenuated and one subunit. Killed vaccines don’t seem to work sadly. Given that Pirbright once managed to get a Bluetongue vaccine out within 6 months it may be a measure of how difficult this one may be!

  10. rq says

    It’s been here for years, major damage has already been done. Wild populations have also been affected.

  11. John Morales says

    Australia, so far, so good with this one.

    (But, as elsewhere, intensive industrial farming is a thing here)

  12. jack16 says

    “Europe, but oh boy, imagine the chaos if it did.”

    “IF” ?? Looks like a sure thing to me.

  13. numerobis says

    uncle frogy: it’s complicated. If there’s a glut of pork on the market as herds are culled early, prices go down. But then there won’t be herds and prices will rise. That’s prices the farmers get, and meat packets pay.

    You can’t store pork forever, so meat packers can’t just smooth out the supply curve, and you might actually see that down blip show up for consumers.

    Plus, that’s all assuming demand is constant. If people fear getting disease from pork, they’ll switch to chicken.

    What is certain is that the poorest pig farmers are going to get screwed.

  14. brain says

    If people fear getting disease from pork, they’ll switch to chicken.

    …and the environment will be grateful.