There is a real risk that the African swine fever virus could enter Canada — and if it did, it would be catastrophic, says one of the country’s leading swine health experts.
“If Canada got a single case in our country, our borders would close to all nations,” said Dr. Egan Brockhoff, a partner in Prairie Swine Health Services in Red Deer and veterinary counsellor for the Canadian Pork Council.
“This virus is devastating to pigs, and it’s absolutely massively devastating to people and families. This virus would be monumentally devastating to the Canadian economy.”
The virulent disease, which is harmless to humans but deadly for pigs, has swept through China but is also widely present in Eastern European farms, where 1,000 new cases were found in the four months before Christmas. Western Europe is also under threat after a wild boar in Belgium tested positive in the fall — prompting France to recently order army personnel to assist hunters in efforts to cull boars near its border.
But oceans are no protection and there is a substantial risk the virus could arrive in North America either through contaminated feed or pork products being illegally brought from overseas. The latter is common, said Brockhoff, who has worked extensively as a swine veterinarian in China and five other Asian countries.
“If you look at American data, they’re getting a lot of meat products — in 2017, the U.S. confiscated 8,000 pork items at the border,” he said. “That’s just what was confiscated. That’s nothing compared to what has actually moved. It happens a lot.”
Brockhoff was in China late last year, working with officials dealing with the African swine fever outbreak and seeing the effects first hand. Although authorities have put prominent warnings in airports telling travellers not to take uncooked pork products (cured, salted, or smoked meat) on their trips, many do just that.
“Taiwan, Korea, and Australia have already reported finding virus in products they’ve seized at their airline borders,” he said.
Canada and the U.S. don’t test for the virus, but are finding (and destroying) pork products at airports.
“We have sniffer dogs at the border, we’re doing inspections,” said Brockhoff.
However, the virus is easily spread, including via contaminated transports and on people’s footwear.
“The virus is moving through the Chinese pork sector in a multitude of diverse ways,” he said. “They’ve found positive contaminated feed mills in China as well.”
That’s the other major risk as the Canadian pork sector imports a lot of soy-based feed ingredients from China.
“Those products are great at moving the virus,” he said. “(But) this isn’t just a China problem. This is a global problem.
“Canada imports pork from all over the world. We have to be conscious of the risk.”
The Canadian Pork Council is working with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to minimize that threat.
“We recommend that all feed ingredients from China or any other affected nation be held at 20 C for 20 days because that will kill the virus.”
Complicating the situation is that while commercial pork producers have extensive biosecurity protocols, that’s not necessarily the case for small herds (so-called ‘backyard pigs’). And wild pigs are also a threat.
No one knows how many wild boars are in Alberta, but Brockhoff visited a pig farm (located between Calgary and Red Deer) last month, where the owners reported shooting a wild boar.
“The reality is we know there are wild pigs in Alberta,” he said. “There’s probably more than we realize.”
Wild pigs are proficient breeders that reach sexual maturity at a young age and will seek out backyard pigs, and may be attracted to properties housing commercial hog operations.
“We don’t want the virus to get into any of these populations,” he said. “If the virus got into the wild pig population, it would be extremely difficult to get the virus out of Canada.”
There is no vaccine, treatment, or cure for African swine fever, and until recently there were no major efforts to create a vaccine.
“Now the European Union is working on vaccines and immunology research,” said Brockhoff. “Chinese colleagues will be ramping up research as well.”
However, traditional techniques for producing a vaccine have, so far, been unsuccessful and may require a new approach, he added.
The symptoms of African swine fever can be very similar to classical swine fever. Pigs may have red spots or patches on their skin, will often cough or appear anorexic, listless, and depressed. Dead pigs have evidence of internal bleeding and mortality rates for the acute version of the disease can be up to 100 per cent.
Since the first case in China was discovered in August, the disease has spread to 24 provinces and led to the culling of more than 900,000 pigs. Some estimate the nation’s pig herd could fall by 20 per cent in 2019.
But the situation could even be worse in Canada as 70 per cent of the sector’s production is exported.
“People recognize that this is a clear risk and in general, everyone wants to see the pork sector rally around making sure that this doesn’t enter Canada,” said Brockhoff.