Coronavirus helps Australia fight African swine fever, but developing neighbours are being overwhelmed


Coronavirus-related border shutdowns have reduced the risk of an incursion of the pig-killing disease, African swine fever (ASF), Australia’s top animal health official has said.

In neighbouring and developing nations, such as Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste, the coronavirus pandemic has overwhelmed efforts to control intensifying ASF outbreaks.

WARNING: This story contains graphic images that some people may find confronting.

Reduced risk to Australia

Australia’s chief veterinary officer Mark Schipp said the closure of international borders had reduced the risk of an outbreak in the domestic pig herd.

ASF has killed an estimated 800 million pigs worldwide.

An incursion in Australia could cost the domestic economy up to $2 billion over five years, according to a study funded by Australian Pork Limited.

Its continued spread across continents and borders has been attributed to the movement of wild pig populations and infected pork products carried by human travellers.

Between January 1 and May 31 this year, Australia biosecurity officers intercepted 8,000 international travellers and over 1,300 mail articles with porcine products.

Dr Schipp said biosecurity efforts had recently pivoted away from air flight passengers and towards other avenues of an incursion.

Looking abroad, Dr Schipp said the ASF pandemic has shown no signs of slowing.

“[In May], India declared they were infected, and we continue to see further detections in Europe as the disease spreads there,” he said.

Neighbours struggle to contain ASF

The coronavirus pandemic may have reduced Australia’s risk of contracting cases of ASF, but outbreaks in nearby developing nations have intensified.

“It has also meant Australian experts are not able to travel up there to provide assistance, so we have to provide assistance remotely to the extent we’re able,” Dr Schipp said.

Dead pigs floating in a dirty river in Timor Leste
ASF was detected in Timor-Leste in September last year, and the outbreak killed 50,000 pigs within three months.(Supplied: Joanita Jong)

In Timor-Leste, containment efforts have been strained by a lack of resources needed to fight two pandemics at once.

ASF was detected in Timor-Leste in September last year, and within three months the outbreak killed 50,000 pigs or 12.5 per cent of the country’s pig herd.

COVID-19 impacts efforts

Timor-Leste’s chief veterinary officer and national director of animal health, Joanita Jong, said seven of the country’s 13 municipalities were now affected by ASF.

World Organisation for Animal Health president Mark Schipp holding a pig.
Dr Schipp says there is an international effort to find a commercial vaccine.(Supplied: Australian Department of Agriculture)

However, the recent national lockdown and movement restrictions because of COVID-19 have hampered ASF surveillance efforts, public awareness campaigns and treatment in remote communities.

“With the COVID-19 situation, everything has changed [from ASF information] to COVID-19 information, and we’re not really talking about any issue about animal disease at all.”

Pig production is an integral part of Timor-Leste’s culture and social fabric, and pork consumption is usually reserved for special ceremony and celebration.

It is also a financial mainstay for the country’s farmers.

She said local authorities have launched a public awareness campaign and a recently-established diagnostic lab has also boosted biosecurity efforts in Timor-Leste.

A massive international effort to find a vaccine is ongoing and researchers in the UK and China claim to have made significant progress.

However, Dr Schipp said ASF was a very complex virus and the difficulty of finding a vaccine was not dissimilar to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.



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