Podcast: Two CSU experts discuss the threat of African Swine Fever

CSU Experts

From avian influenza to foot and mouth disease, biological disease outbreaks in livestock pose the potential to disrupt the nation’s food supply. One of the biggest current threats is African swine fever. 

Outbreaks of the disease have been reported in South Asia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and most recently in parts of Europe. A report from a meeting held at Colorado State University by the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense stated that current government policy and industry practices are not adequate for disease outbreaks that could affect crops, livestock and farms. 

The nation’s land-grant universities, including CSU, can improve that response. Host Stacy Nick, along with CSU Veterinary Extension Specialist and disaster preparation and recovery expert Dr. Ragan Adams and CSU meat specialist and Associate Professor for the College of Agricultural Sciences Jennifer Martin, discuss the threat of African swine fever and CSU’s role in combating it.

Hear from CSU Veterinary Extension Specialist Ragan Adams and College of Agricultural Sciences Associate Professor Jennifer Martin on the threat of African Swine Fever and CSU’s role in combating it.

(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)  

Stacy Nick: Thanks so much for being here. Let’s start with a little background. Dr. Adams, what exactly is African swine fever, and why is it so dangerous? 

Ragan Adams: African swine fever is a highly contagious and often deadly viral disease affecting both domestic and wild swine of all ages. African swine fever, or ASF as we tend to refer to it, is not a threat to human health and cannot be transmitted from pigs to human. It is not a food safety issue. It’s a swine health issue. ASF was discovered 100 years ago in Kenya, and in the last four years since 2018, it has spread to about 50 countries around the world. It has never yet been found in the United States and we would like to keep it that way. 

Nick: Dr. Adams, what are the chances that the disease could make it to the U.S.? And if it does, how should we approach the threat? 

Adams: Well, last July of 2021, African swine fever was found in both the Dominican Republic and Haiti. A special branch of the United States Department of Agriculture, known as APHIS or the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, has been helping both countries combat the disease, as well to limit the spread to adjacent Caribbean countries. So, in summary, we really have our eye on the fact that it is circulating near mainland United States, and we’d like to keep it out of the United States. 

Jennifer Martin: Yeah, and I think that’s such an important piece to not only reference the federal response that’s happening at the United States level, but also what’s going on globally to help see this disease not cross-country boundaries. And the more things we can do or the more proactive we can be from a U.S. perspective of not only preparedness for spread or for entry into the U.S., but prevention of that as well. We’re trying to cover all our bases, if you will, to make sure that we’re prepared, but also have an eye on prevention. 

Nick: Now, Dr. Martin, other countries are seeing a devastating impact following outbreaks. If we see one here, what could an outbreak of African swine fever mean for U.S. producers? 

Martin: Yeah, such a great question. And I think the first thing to note is that it’s already impacting U.S. producers because the pork supply chain is global. So, a lot of the pork that we produce here in the United States is exported to other countries. And so, as we’ve seen this disease impact other countries, there’s been a large demand on U.S. pork producers to produce more pigs and to continue to produce the high-quality pork that we’re known for producing. So, we’ve already felt it in some ways because this is a global meat industry and a global supply chain. But if we do see an outbreak on U.S. territory or in the United States mainland. Again, to Dr. Adams point, as this is a disease that impacts pigs, we’ll see immediate impacts on the health of animals. And unfortunately, the only way to stop transmission of this disease once a herd of pigs is impacted or a herd of pigs has an animal that tests positive is to depopulate or euthanize those animals. And so, we would see not only an immediate impact on the health of the animals, but large spread requirements to depopulate animals that have been impacted by this, either through direct transmission or in close proximity to animals that have been impacted by this disease. So economically, the impact would be tremendous. We would see rural communities where these farms are housed would be most immediately impacted by this. The farmers and the producers who own the animals would be impacted by this. And again, because this is a global pork supply chain, consumers would see an impact at the grocery store because the price of pork would likely go up as the pork products that we’re consuming as well as exporting will change, will see a reduction in the amount of pork that’s available for purchase and for consumption. And so, from a health impact, there are certainly a lot of very severe consequences of transmission or spread in the United States. But this is something that we would certainly see at the consumer level in food prices and even more so when you think about jobs that would be impacted. So, it’s scary to think about what happens if this disease comes into the United States because of the ways in which it spreads and the impacts that we would see because of that. But I do want to reiterate the point that Dr. Adams mentioned, which is this is a disease that impacts pigs only. So, while we would see severe impacts on the pork supply chain and the availability of pork in populations of pigs, there is no risk to a human who interacts with those animals. And so that’s important for people to recognize is that we’re not concerned about this disease from a public health perspective, truly from an animal health perspective, and then consequences to the economy and the global pork supply chain. 

Nick: And now, as the Boots on the Ground report notes, the nation’s 112 land grant universities, including CSU, could have a huge role in the fight against these types of biological threats to agriculture. The report details 15 recommendations, including incorporating land grant universities in national food and agro-biodefense activities and expanding their role in international surveillance for food and agricultural defense. I’d like to ask both of you what you see as CSU’s role in preventing an outbreak and addressing an outbreak, if that were to occur, and what current research efforts are occurring regarding this issue. Dr. Martin let’s start with you. 

Martin: When you speak about, or you ask about research happening at CSU, I think something that’s important to highlight is the transdisciplinary and multidisciplinary way in which this challenge or this potential issue has been addressed. So, there is a very boots-on-the-ground effort with people that are raising pigs. We need to leverage the land-grant mission with extension to interact with these producers, farmers and ranchers. There’s also basic science that’s happening, and basic science from an epidemiology perspective, from a biology to perspective, lots of different disciplines and expertise areas are necessary for responding to something like this that is, if there was a silver bullet solution, someone would have developed it already. And so, I think that’s something that is not unique to CSU, but something we should be proud of as a university, that this is something that a lot of people are interested in and lots of people are passionate about finding not only ways to help and support those who will be directly impacted by this, but also the larger scientific efforts that are occurring across the campus in this space. One that I’ll speak specifically to is helping to make sure that the producers themselves are prepared. So, what can we do prior to the disease arriving in the United States to keep it from spreading if and when it enters the mainland? And that entails working with smaller producers, larger producers to make sure that they are following good biosecurity practices, that they’re aware of what resources are available to them, both at the local, state and federal levels, not only in the case of an outbreak, but prior to an outbreak, things that they can do and tools that they can utilize. And one program that we’re really focusing on as part of a nationwide program called the U.S. Swine Health Improvement Plan and the U.S. Swine Health Improvement Plan, or SHIP, is really intended to help producers of these animals be prepared in the event of an outbreak. So that if there is an outbreak in Colorado, producers know quickly what they need to do so that we’re not reacting to an outbreak, we are preparing producers on the front end of what they need to be ready for and what they can be prepared to do if that were to happen. The good thing with that program is it gives them a lot of great biosecurity refreshers. So, if they’ve forgotten some of the things that are just principles of biosecurity, it reminds them of things that we can do to stop disease transmission. It also helps to connect us as a land grain institution with those producers so that if they have questions, we’re a resource that they can reach out to. There are some research pieces with that, but a lot of just relationship building and making sure that producers of all sizes, whether you’re the person who has two pigs in your backyard or 2,000 pigs, that you have the tools and resources you need to keep your animals healthy and safe, as well as be prepared. If there is a foreign animal disease threat or a disease threat such as this one. We’re able to do a lot of surveys to get a feel for what they are doing currently. What are some ways that we can help them address maybe some challenges that they’re facing and really trying hard to be prepared for this in the event that it does arrive here. I think one piece to point out is that, to Dr. Adams point earlier, we’re part of a larger response. So, the U.S.D.A. APHIS or the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service would lead any response to an outbreak. But prior to that, land grant institutions, other universities, and other researchers are playing a role in preparedness and prevention from this. 

Adams: To add to some of the things that Dr. Martin said. First of all, thank you so much for emphasizing the lead role of USDA. APHIS. Universities are an essential part of the solution, but they’re not in charge of the response. The response, as you said, is one that’s made, it’s practiced, and then it’s remade even before the disease hits our country. We also at CSU have a veterinary diagnostic lab which is certified as a National Animal Health Laboratory, and it would help with testing, as they have done with COVID and are now doing with HPAI or highly pathogenic avian influenza that is currently circulating in the U.S. Researchers were constantly behind the scenes on developing better vaccines and new surveillance measures. Also, during an outbreak, the research community would help solve the multiple problems that occur during containment of a disease outbreak. 

Nick: And one last thing that I want to talk with you about, and it’s something that I’ve heard repeated throughout our conversation. And I think we should make sure that we get people’s attention on this, African swine fever again, it’s not something that humans can contract. 

Martin: So that’s a good point and something that we often see confusion around, like this zoonotic transmission from animals to humans. And there are certain diseases that can be transmitted from an animal to a human or vice versa, from a human to an animal. But this is not one of those diseases. Currently, African swine fever is not a human public health challenge. It can only be spread from pig to pig, and it can spread in a lot of different ways. It can spread environmentally from the environment to a pig or from other things. But there’s no risk at this point in time of a pig making a human sick or the human actually transmitting this virus to the pigs themselves. But we see this question often, and especially in today’s world, where we’ve just experienced a pandemic. We’re all very in tune with how things spread and the roles that humans play in transmission and are perhaps a bit concerned about things that could be the next pandemic in humans. This is not it. This is a disease that is certainly impactful to humans, but in very different ways. And the ways in which we would see the impact on humans is not related to public health, but more related to the economy and availability of pork products. 

Nick: Thank you so much for talking with us today about this important topic and CSU’s role in addressing it. Again, I’m your host, Stacy Nick, and I’m joined by CSU meat specialist Dr. Jennifer Martin and CSU veterinary extension specialist Dr. Ragan Adams.