Health crisis should not determine pig research

22-02-2016 | | |
Fernando Rodriguez
Fernando Rodriguez

African Swine Fever (ASF) has never been structurally researched like e.g. PRRS. And when it happened, it was the result of emergency situations instead of being the outcome of long-term planning. Time for a change, says expert columnist Dr Fernando Rodríguez.

A well-known saying in Spanish says that man is the only animal that trips over the same stone twice. It is true and can clearly be seen when diving into the research of African Swine Fever. Let me explain.

As a scientist working in the field of African Swine Fever vaccinology, I would like to share some objective data obtained using the NCBI PubMed website that allows us to draw parallels with the history of African Swine Fever and our scientific productivity.

Total number of publications on ASF

The total number of recorded publications in PubMed after typing: ‘African Swine Fever’ was 1,223 for between 1955 and today. A surprisingly low number, given that ASF was described for the first time in Kenya in 1921.

Taking a closer look at Figure 1, 3 elements stand out:

  1. The exponential increase of papers published between the years 1992 and 1996, coinciding with the entrance of Spain and Portugal into the European Union (1986), which demanded a territory free from ASF;
  2. The dramatic fall on scientific productivity immediately after (1997-2006), coinciding with the declaration of eradication of ASFv in the area in 1995; and
  3. A second peak of high scientific productivity, exponentially increased since 2011 to today, coinciding with the reentrance of the virus into continental Europe in 2007 and its continuous expansion towards the EU borders (where it entered for the first time in 2014).

Encouraging scientific productivity

I would strongly encourage using scientific productivity figures as a key tool in future surveillance programmes (a humoristic touch). If not predictive, scientific health clearly reflects pig health, at least when talking about ASF.

The peaks of productivity corresponded perfectly with the implementation of intensive international research programmes, while the dramatic drop of resources from almost all global and local agencies is reflected in a dramatic loss of productivity. Is it just a coincidence? A rhetoric question, if you ask me…

Research agendas can’t rely on contingency plans

Research agendas, however, can’t rely on emergency and contingency political plans and should be based on more rational and long-term national and international efforts.

As an example, the eradication of ASFv from the Iberian Peninsula in 1995 represented the death penalty for some of the most prestigious research groups in the ASFv field, an already reduced community. Rebuilding 10 years of scientific loss would include the best scenario for another 10 years, a precious period of time when fighting such a complex disease.

2007 ASF re-entrance will not be the last

The 2007 re-entrance into the European Continent most probably will not be last one. The epidemiological situation of ASFv in Africa is worse today than ever and little if any attention is paid by the international community, occupied in what is classified as domestic problems. Eradication of ASFv (if included one day in the international agenda) requires fighting the virus and the disease in Africa, a very complex task that requires maximal cooperation from all sectors.

Luckily, scientists in the field have taken a step forward with the recent launching of GARA, the coordinated Global African Swine Fever Research Alliance with a single vision: the progressive control and eradication of ASF. Failing to do so will demonstrate that man is the only animal to trip over the same stone not twice but many more times.

Fernando Rodriguez Researcher