Since early August, the virus has spread to four provinces about 745 miles apart. The budding epidemic could endanger the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of hog farmers and jeopardize China’s enormous pork industry. There are about 700 million pigs in China, half the world’s pig population. Pork is the country’s primary protein source.
If China cannot quickly contain the virus, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warned that it could jump to the Korean Peninsula and Southeast Asia, creating a continentwide crisis.
“It may be very, very difficult to control this epidemic in China,” said Young S. Lyoo, a professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Konkuk University. “And once it spreads to Asian countries, we could have big social chaos and instability.”
African swine fever has no impact on humans. But it is extremely deadly in pigs — the most virulent strands of the virus kill nearly 100 percent of infected hogs. There is no vaccine or treatment, and the virus is tough to eradicate. The hardy virus can survive for several weeks in cold or warm weather, living in pork products, in slaughterhouses and on the back of trucks used to transport swine.
Juan Lubroth, chief veterinary officer of the U.N. agency, which is based in Rome, cautioned against panic, saying it was “too early to tell” how widely the virus had spread and what the impact would be. But he also urged Asia to “prepare for an incursion.”
China’s first African swine fever cases appeared in Liaoning province in early August. In the following weeks, officials said the disease had spread to three other provinces. In response, Chinese authorities have fanned out across the country. So far, they have culled an estimated 24,000 animals, according to the U.N. agency.
Local animal health officials have been tasked with communicating information about the disease with the country’s pig farmers. The government has offered a subsidy of $117 for every pig infected by the virus.
But reaching hundreds of thousands of industry professionals is a major challenge. China’s pig farms run the gamut from massive industrial processing plants to small family enterprises. Additionally, Chinese farmers do not have any experience with African swine fever, Lyoo said. So they may not notice troubling signs right away.