A viral outbreak in hogs just off the U.S. coast has U.S. officials ramping up efforts to make sure it doesn’t decimate the American pork industry.
African swine fever, an infectious and lethal virus for pigs, has been detected in the Dominican Republic — the closest it’s been to the U.S. in 40 years.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory confirmed the virus in pigs in the country through a surveillance program on July 28. The Dominican Republic has reported cases in 11 provinces of the country, according to a report from the Swine Health Information Center.
The disease exclusively infects pigs — not humans, said Paul Sundberg, the executive director of the Swine Health Information Center. But it’s highly infectious and lethal for pigs, he said. The spread to the U.S. could prove disastrous.
“It would stop our pork exports, and we export between 25- 30% of our product right now,” Sundberg said.
When the Dominican Republic dealt with the disease from 1978 to 1980, it led to 192,473 pigs being culled. Cuba, Brazil and Haiti also had the virus at the time, which led to the culling of another 1.2 million pigs.
The importing of Dominican Republic pork is already prohibited as a result of classical swine fever restrictions, according to the USDA.
Andres Perez, the director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University of Minnesota, said the disease is difficult to handle because the virus can still survive in dead pigs or meat.
“If we use that meat and processed meat and use it for feed or food, that potentially will still be infectious,” he said. “The same situation with the environment with supplies, so it is really, really difficult to work with a virus.”
Perez says vaccines for African Swine Fever are still in development.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection is increasing inspections of flights from the Dominican Republic to make sure travelers aren’t bringing in pork to the U.S.
Countries like China, Germany and Poland are also hotspots for African swine fever. But one of the biggest priorities, Sundberg said, is to figure out how the disease came to the Dominican Republic.
“That’s going to be a hard question to answer,” Sundberg says. “But it is a key question … to make sure that that is not an open window for us or for North America, and or for the rest of the Caribbean countries.”