Where Covid-19 and African Swine Fever meet

ter Beek
Vincent ter Beek Editor of Pig Progress / Topic: Pigs around the world
A close-up illustration of Covid-19.  Illustration: Shutterstock
A close-up illustration of Covid-19. Illustration: Shutterstock

‘The big unknown’, that is a label that fits perfectly on the current Covid-19 virus, according to Pig Progress editor Vincent ter Beek. There are some striking similarities between the Covid-19 outbreak and African Swine Fever, he says.

Who would have thought – a different virus has taken over the headlines. No longer it is African Swine Fever dominating the columns online and in the papers, but Coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) is. A virus that does not affect swine yet indirectly affects the swine business.

Just take the vast amount of events that have been postponed or cancelled, think of the China Animal Husbandry Expo (CAHE) in China, which was moved from May to September, or Victam 2020 which was supposed to happen later this month but has been moved to 9-11 July 2020. Only these already show the impact – and then I’m not even speaking about regions being quarantined and stock markets plummeting.

I know there is one major difference between ASF and Covid-19, being that ASF leads to the death of virtually all pigs whereas Covid-19 would in most cases not be lethal, meaning that proper health care can play a role as well. Yet from a media perspective, there are some striking similarities between the 2 viruses which I find interesting to share.

The sudden panic

Virus introduction, I find, seems to follow a similar path into the people’s brains and minds, whether it involves humans or swine. For a long time, a virus on the other side of the planet appears not ‘our’ problem. It’s a big unknown thing somewhere far away.

“Surely it can’t be that bad?”

“Aren’t they (over there) responding a bit over the top?”

“In our country something like that would never evolve to become a big problem.”

Then, when it strikes close by, people start getting nervous. This probably happens when its is already too late. The Big Unknown suddenly becomes uncomfortable.

“Why didn’t we see this coming earlier?”

“I want to know everything there is to know about the virus.”

“Where can I buy a vaccine?”

The absence of a vaccine

Now that is a striking second – the absence of a commercially available vaccine. The reason why there is no vaccine is different with both viruses. In the case of African Swine Fever, it has been known for almost 100 years that there is a lethal virus, yet for a long time the virus being in sub-Sahara Africa meant that it didn’t get top priority – at least not as much as perhaps it should have gotten. The virus has proven to be a time bomb and when it came, it was deadly. These days many labs around the world are working on it. US researchers at the USDA-ARS recently reported progress and so did Chinese researchers at the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute.

The reason why the coronavirus does not have a vaccine is a completely different one – because it didn’t exist before. Many labs around the world are currently working on it and I have no doubt that the first commercial methods will be available fairly soon – it will not take 100 years, that is for sure.

Reporting the outbreaks

There are many websites around the world keeping us posted about the progress of the Covid-19 virus, about the number of people infected, the number of people that died of the virus and mortality percentages, showing interesting maps. Interestingly, however concrete those numbers appear to be, it’s good to ask questions about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind those figures and in that I see a parallel with African Swine Fever outbreaks which Pig Progress has been following intensively.

For example – can people be infected with Covid-19 yet barely notice it? If so, that would mean that the virus could be much more widespread than is actually reported, meaning that the real mortality figure is much lower.

Extremely interesting in this context I find is the way in which authorities have behaved in recent years with the reporting of ASF outbreaks. I have come to understand that accurately reporting ASF outbreaks depends on a gigantic mix of components, just to name a few:

  • Availability of test kits;
  • Presence of necessary diagnostics infrastructure, including labs;
  • Availability of funding for affected farmers;
  • Availability of educated manpower to process all information;
  • Knowledge about the virus;
  • Sense of responsibility for others;
  • Cultural attitudes with regard to transparency in case of large problems;
  • Corruption;
  • Protection of export interests.

I’ve come to see that with regard to ASF, some countries have reported more outbreaks than others, in different frequencies, in different intensity, on different levels as well. Some did not report anything at all – or only occasional outbreaks. I may have had a head start, but in case I wanted to have a reliable idea as to what numbers might be credible beyond doubt with regard to reporting coronavirus, I’d first look at the countries that have been reporting ASF frequently, swiftly and without hesitation.

Lessons learnt with regard to Covid-19 and ASF

Lessons learnt are threefold. First, it’s never too early to start thinking about a virus at the other side of the planet (look at this Danish example). Secondly, let’s hope the millions pumped into the vaccine business to find a good Covid-19 vaccine somehow lead to a positive spin-off for pig vaccine development too. And last but not least, countries reporting many outbreaks are not the ones having the largest problem – they in fact are the ones sharing the most information.

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