There is no vaccine for African swine fever. So, when traditional containment efforts fail, triggering its spread across large swaths of Asia, the world should be very concerned.
ASF has long been endemic in sub-Saharan Africa and has been present in parts of Europe for decades. It is harmless to humans, but is deadly and highly contagious for pigs, wiping out entire herds while threatening food security and causing devastating economic losses.
Now the disease has spread to Asia and Europe, where animal health agencies are struggling to contain what has become the largest-ever animal disease outbreak in the world. Since last August, more than 3.6 million pigs have been culled in Asia in an attempt to gain control of the outbreak.
The disease has not reached Canada, but the threat is significant. Canadian farmers remember well the detection of several isolated cases of BSE in Canadian beef herds between 2003 and 2005. It temporarily shut down beef exports to more than 30 countries and is estimated by the Canadian Agricultural Trade Policy Research Network to have cost the industry more than $4 billion.
The ASF regional crisis could become a global one if containment efforts fail and if a vaccine cannot be developed in time.
In response to the ASF outbreak, Canada is stepping up containment efforts to keep the disease out of the country, including a federal government investment of up to $31 million to install more sniffer dogs at Canadian airports to help detect illegal importation of meat products that might be contaminated.
The stakes are high. Canada is the world’s third-largest pork exporter, generating about $24 billion annually for the Canadian economy and contributing to more than 100,000 direct and indirect jobs. As well, Canada convened a forum in Ottawa in late April to discuss a global response to the ASF crisis.
Canada is also playing a leading role in the vital effort to develop a vaccine.
The Livestock Vaccine Innovation Fund, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Global Affairs Canada, and Canada’s International Development Research Centre, is investing nearly $57 million to accelerate the development, production and sustainable delivery of new and improved vaccines for animal diseases affecting the poorest and most vulnerable smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia.
This project is seeking to overcome a key hurdle — the complex immune responses generated by the virus in infected pigs. Advanced microbiological techniques are now making possible the intricate virus manipulations required in the design and development of a safe and effective vaccine.
During the current outbreak, countries are scaling up known containment responses, including efforts to cull infected and vulnerable herds and to detect contaminated meat products and byproducts at border crossings.
These are important steps to halt the further spread of ASF, as the current outbreak has already caused pork prices to spike as much as 40 percent and threatened food security in affected countries where pork is a staple of diets.
Ultimately, the most cost-effective, long-term solution to control ASF is an effective vaccine, which is now in sight.
The current crisis reminds us that the global community cannot guarantee that ASF and other diseases will remain confined to areas where they have long been endemic — they may spread under the right conditions.
The responsibility to respond is a global one. International collaboration, including in vaccine research, is the surest way to address these threats for a positive outcome.
Dr. Dominique Charron is vice-president of programs and partnerships at the International Development Research Centre.