As African swine fever (ASF) reaches the Americas Region for the first time in almost 40 years, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) is calling on countries to strengthen their surveillance efforts. Critical support provided by the Global Framework for the Progressive Control of Transboundary Animal Diseases (GF-TADs), a joint OIE and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) initiative, is underway.
According to OIE, due to its complex epidemiology, ASF, which may cause up to 100% mortality, has spread relentlessly, affecting more than 50 countries in Africa, Europe, and Asia since 2018.
Now, countries in the Americas Region are also on alert following the discovery of the disease in the Dominican Republic. The country recently informed the World Animal Health Information System (OIE-WAHIS) that ASF has reemerged after years of being free from the disease. While further investigations are ongoing to determine how the virus entered the country, several measures are already in place to halt its further spread.
“The great diversity of production and trade systems that currently coexist in the Americas Region pose unique additional challenges when it comes to facing this disease. But the situation does not find us unprepared, as we have been anticipating an event like this for several years now,” stated Dr. Luis Barcos, OIE regional representative for the Americas.
When ASF swept into Asia for the first time in 2018, a regional Standing Group of Experts was convened in the Americas under the GF-TADs framework to get ready for a potential introduction of the disease. This group has been providing critical guidelines on disease prevention, preparedness and response, in line with the global initiative for the control of ASF.
The efforts invested in preparedness paid off, as a network of experts built during peace times was already in place to quickly and effectively coordinate a response to this urgent threat.
After the official alert was disseminated via the OIE-WAHIS, the OIE and FAO swiftly mobilized their Standing Group of Experts in order to provide support to the regional countries. In this vein, the group calls on countries to reinforce their border controls, as well as to implement the OIE international Standards on ASF to mitigate the risk of disease introduction. Acknowledging the heightened risk, sharing information and research findings with the global veterinary community will be of critical importance to trigger early measures that can protect pig populations in the region. Priority actions should also be considered to significantly raise the level of awareness of the disease. To this end, an OIE communication campaign is available in several languages to support countries in their efforts.
An Emergency Management Regional Team has also been established to closely monitor the situation and support the affected and neighboring countries in the upcoming days, under the GF-TADs leadership.
While the Americas Region is no longer free of ASF, controlling the spread of the disease to new countries is still possible through proactive, concrete and coordinated actions by all the regional stakeholders, including the private as well as the public sectors. Achieving this will be critical to protecting food security and livelihoods of some of the world’s most vulnerable populations from this devastating pig disease.
U.S. safeguards in place
USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Associate Administrator Jack Shere said safeguards are already in place and will be enhanced to prevent ASF from entering the United States.
“We don’t accept any pork or pork products from either the Dominican Republic or Haiti as it is now because they have classical swine fever,” said Shere. Still, he said USDA has also been in contact with the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol people to increase surveillance and mitigation and to work with boats and air traffic that come the Caribbean, especially the DR, to increase vigilance for passenger baggage and the possibility of meat and meat products that might come in—especially pork—from people visiting relatives or who are unaware of the regulations.
To U.S. hog operations, Shere said “now is the time to increase or beef up that biosecurity to make it more impenetrable than it has been in the past and to be aware of some of the things that they need to do to protect their farms.”
U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) President and CEO Dan Halstrom said that while the ASF findings are very concerning, the U.S. industry is well-prepared for these situations.
“The good news is that the U.S. industry has been very proactive in working closely with USDA to prepare for these sorts of situations and really help bolster the protection for the U.S. swine herd,” Halstrom said.
USDA will also continue to aid the DR to help contain and eradicate the disease, Shere said.
The current ASF case in the DR was actually discovered as part of a surveillance program that the USDA has with the country. “We started it back in 2019. They submit samples from their swine population and send them to us, and we run those samples at the Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory in Plum Island.”
In the most recent set of samples, Shere explained, the DR had particular interest in 12 samples, wanting the lab to run those first. “We ran those samples first, and we found that they were indeed positive for African swine fever.”
According to Halstrom, ASF in the DR won’t likely have an immediate impact on trade, especially since the USDA already bans products from the region.
He further noted that the DR has been an outstanding market for U.S. pork, which is expected to continue. “The U.S. shipped more than $90 million in pork to the DR in 2020. In 2021, we’re up about 50%.”
Still, Halstrom emphasized the need for more work on regionalization agreements that will help protect the U.S. industry’s ability to export pork.
“These positives in the Dominican Republic herd heighten the need for the U.S. to be more proactive, working on regionalization protocols with key trading partners like Mexico, like Canada, like Japan should ASF, or any foreign animal disease for that matter, reach our borders.”
Industry groups have been raising this discussion to USDA, and Halstrom said this momentum needs to continue.