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African swine fever vaccine closer to reality

National Pork Board piglets grouped in pen
HIGH HOPES: Recent research shows promise for a vaccine candidate that helps U.S. and global pork producers fight costly African swine fever.
Hog Outlook: Help is on the horizon for U.S. producers as a Vietnamese company takes a vaccine to commercial production.

A lot has been said and written about African swine fever, both from its rampant spread across central Europe and Asia, to the economic impact it would have on the U.S. pork industry and the entire ag economy.

To say an ASF outbreak in the U.S. swine herd would be devastating is an understatement. If ASF were to hit the U.S. swine herd, international markets would immediately close to U.S. pork.

An Iowa State University study looks at two scenarios of ASF hitting the nation’s herd — one where the country is unable to eliminate the disease over a 10-year period, and the other operates under the assumption that the disease is under control and the country’s pork products can reenter export markets within two years.

Under both scenarios, the study shows U.S. live hog prices would decline by 40% to 50%. In the two-year scenario, the industry faces a period of large financial losses, but is back in the export markets before significant downsizing begins. Pork industry revenue losses add up to $15 billion in the two-year scenario, and a little over $50 billion in the all-years scenario.

Nationwide employment losses equal 140,000 jobs at the end of 10 years in the all-years scenario. There are almost no job losses at the end of 10 years for the two-year scenario.

This study was published in 2020, and ASF was squarely on the radar of U.S. animal health issues — but still at a safe distance away in Europe and Asia. That was until last year when the lethal swine virus was detected in pig herds in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, too close for comfort.

It needs to be stressed that ASF is not transmissible to humans and does not pose a risk to human health.

U.S. swine producers learned the importance of strict biosecurity measures to keep most pathogens away, and that diligence also pays off against ASF. Tack on the efforts of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents screening incoming travelers and the Beagle Brigade sniffing out illegal pork products, and so far, ASF has been kept at bay.

But what happens when these efforts won’t be good enough, and U.S. hog producers need more than biosecurity to keep their herds healthy?

Help on the way?

A glimmer of hope came in late April when scientists with the USDA Agriculture Research Service announced that an ASF vaccine candidate passed an important safety test required before it can receive ultimate regulatory approval.

An ARS press release says the vaccine is one step closer to commercial availability, and that this test is a milestone as part of a series of safety studies. These new results show that USDA’s vaccine candidate does not revert to its normal virulence after being injected into swine. This “reversion to virulence” test is required to ensure that the vaccine’s weakened form of the ASF virus does not revert to its original state.

“This is a critical milestone for the ASF vaccine candidate,” senior ARS scientist Manuel Borca says. “These safety studies bring this vaccine one step closer to being available on the market.”

The safety studies are necessary to gain approval for use in Vietnam and eventually in other countries around the world. Future commercial use, however, will depend on approval from the department of animal health within each requesting country.

The vaccine candidate was recently selected by a Vietnamese company for commercial development in that country. The company, National Veterinary Joint Stock Co., or NAVETCO, has partnered with ARS on ASF vaccine research and development since 2020. Further development will continue once the vaccine candidate receives regulatory approval from Vietnam.

This promising research will pay huge dividends, obviously for Vietnamese pigs, but also globally if the vaccine becomes commercially available and is widely adopted in pork-production countries. There is more at stake than a steady supply of chops and bacon. The livelihoods of U.S. hog producers could hang in the balance.

Schulz, a Farm Progress senior staff writer, grew up on the family hog farm in southern Minnesota, before a career in ag journalism, including National Hog Farmer.

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