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Concerns continue about ASF entering the US

The US swine industry has always been concerned for decades about foreign animal diseases entering the US.

7 January 2020, at 10:00am

The US swine industry has been concerned for decades about foreign animal diseases entering the US – from foot-and-mouth disease to the more urgent fears of African swine fever (ASF). Diagnostics are key to identify the virus early.

Dr Patrick Webb, Director of Swine Health Programs with the National Pork Board, speaks to 5m's Sarah Mikesell

“We've been worried about these foreign animal diseases for years, and African swine fever (ASF) is just the icing on the cake,” Said Dr. Patrick Webb, Director of Swine Health Programs with the National Pork Board. “From a regulatory standpoint, USDA plays a critical role when a country says, “Yes, we have African swine fever.” A lot of rules go into place that help prevent the potential entry of that virus into the United States.”

What’s happening in China has changed the rules and heightened ASF’s awareness. Once a country is infected, the change in regulatory status is important. This includes rules to follow at the border, especially people travelling from infected countries, like China, into the US.

“You have to be able to target those folks and make sure that they're not bringing anything into the country that would be related to pigs, meat and meat products that potentially could be harbouring the virus,” he explained. “There's a lot of work that goes on with Customs and Border Protection and USDA Plant Protection Quarantine to make sure that those items don't make it through. USDA’s Beagle Brigade is a great tool for doing that as well. Certainly, once a country announces they have ASF, a lot of things go into place to help mitigate risk.”

The role of diagnostics in ASF

On the diagnostics front, it's critical that if a Foreign Animal Disease like ASF were to get into the US pig population, that it's identified very quickly. It’s important that pig producers report any suspect illnesses in their herd. If a producer suspects they have ASF, contact the state veterinarian and they’ll conduct an immediate foreign animal disease investigation. As part of the investigation, diagnostic samples are taken.

“You’ve got to take the right sample and they’ve got to run the right test. When the sample gets to the lab for official testing, they start with PCR and then they’ll run other tests too,” he noted. “The key is that you've got to have a really good test that's very specific and very sensitive because you're trying to say whether a disease is or isn't here. If it is here, you're going to be doing things that are of tremendous consequence to the producer, animal agriculture and the economy. If it's not present, you want to make sure that it's not there. Because if you miss it, the disease has an opportunity to spread.”

The state and federal animal health officials are in charge, and producers play a supporting role. State veterinarians can set up regulatory disease control areas around positive cases, and they will stop pig movements.

“The pork industry moves a lot of pigs, and it’s a big problem if our producers can't get back into business,” Dr Webb said. “If I set up one of these areas, chances are I'm going to include a lot more producers that don't have the disease than do. So, it becomes very important in our response that we are able to get out and do surveillance as fast as possible. We've got to get samples and get them to the lab, so you have to have excellent diagnostics in place.”

There’s work underway with USDA to try to validate oral fluids for surveillance and response testing. Oral fluids are a great sample to work with, but you've got to have the right diagnostics to handle the sample to get you the right answer – one that you can trust.

Find more information about African swine fever diagnostics.