K-State researchers work to stay ahead of African Swine Fever virus

Kansas State University researchers have a head start on preventing the spread of a devastating disease of pigs through the food they eat. And it’s a good thing.

That’s because they say that if African Swine Fever were ever to reach the United States, it could cause losses in the U.S. pork industry that could exceed $4 billion.

“African Swine Fever virus is a terrible disease that affects only swine,” said Cassie Jones, a swine nutritionist with K-State Research and Extension. “The good news of it is that it is not zoonotic so consumers don’t have to be concerned because it is not something that would impact pork safety.”

But pork producers are on heightened alert for the disease, which is crippling the pork industry in China and parts of Eastern Europe, and new cases were also confirmed recently in Belgium.

The disease causes hemorrhages in the skin and internal organs of pigs. There are no vaccines or treatments available for the disease, so it causes nearly 100 percent mortality. In areas of China and other countries where it has been discovered, officials have had to cull all pigs within approximately a three-mile radius in attempts to prevent its spread.

“It’s a disease that is not present in the U.S. yet, but that sometimes gives us a false sense of security,” Jason Woodworth, K-State Research and Extension swine nutritionist, said. “Because of how much travel we have going back and forth from China and other infected countries, and because of a number of ingredients we use in our diets from infected countries, there is a heightened risk now that we will transfer something into the United States.”

Jones notes that China produces nearly half of the global pig population.

“African Swine Fever is considered a reportable disease, which means it is reportable to the World Health Organization,” Jones said. “Doing so would likely shut down all trade and exports of pork until we can assure our exporting countries or trade partners that our domestic pig supply is safe.”

In 2014, another disease—porcine epidemic diarrheal virus, or PEDv—caused huge losses in the pork industry. It was at that time that K-State researchers discovered that feed and feed ingredients could be a vector for the disease to spread among pigs.

K-State’s work led to enhanced biosecurity measures to help the U.S. pork industry reduce the risk. Now, that work may help to fend off the threat from the African Swine Fever virus.

“One of the things we’re most concerned about is that some ingredients are likely to get contaminated based upon common drying practices that would occur within countries,” Jones said. “Many of the countries that have this virus circulating will use the roadways for both drying and threshing mechanisms. Then, they collect the grains and transport those internationally.”

K-State’s current recommendations on biosecurity practices for swine feed are available on the website, KSUswine.org (select ‘Feed Safety Resources’). The site includes questions that farmers should be asking a feed supplier, and a review of biosecurity strategies on the farm.

“The thing we have to do is get educated,” Woodworth said. “One of the big keys is biosecurity, and that’s something that helped us (when PEDv was present). Keeping a heightened level of biosecurity presence, which will help prevent African Swine Fever and other viruses or pathogens, will be beneficial.”

K-State researchers currently are studying the African Swine Fever virus in collaboration with Megan Niederwerder, Steve Dritz, and Bob Rowland at the university’s Biosecurity Research Institute, a bio-safety level 3 facility.