The porcine industry in Assam suffered major losses during the COVID-19 lockdown, which was followed by an outbreak of African Swine Fever (ASF) that has killed more than 17,000 pigs in Assam and over 4,500 in Arunachal Pradesh.
Assam has also opposed the Centre’s recent decision to transport pigs from Punjab and Haryana to the Northeast, maintaining that the free movement of pigs from outside the state will undermine the steps taken to control the spread of the disease so far.
African Swine Fever (ASF) does not affect humans but can be catastrophic for pigs. The current outbreak of ASF in India is the first time that the disease has been reported in the country. In September 2019, the outbreak of the disease swept through pig populations in China — which is the largest exporter and consumer of pork — leading to large-scale cullings. As a result, the prices of pork shot up by over 50 per cent in the country over pre-outbreak levels.
ASF is a severe viral disease that affects wild and domestic pigs typically resulting in an acute haemorrhagic fever. The disease has a case fatality rate (CFR) of almost 100 per cent. Its routes of transmission include direct contact with an infected or wild pig (alive or dead), indirect contact through ingestion of contaminated material such as food waste, feed or garbage, or through biological vectors such as ticks.
The disease is characterised by sudden deaths in pigs. Other manifestations of the disease include high fever, depression, anorexia, loss of appetite, haemorrhages in the skin, vomiting and diarrhoea among others. It is important that determination of ASF is made through laboratory testing and it is differentiated from Classical Swine Fever (CSF), whose signs may be similar to ASF, but is caused by a different virus for which a vaccine exists.
Even so, while ASF is lethal, it is less infectious than other animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease. But as of now, there is no approved vaccine, which is also a reason why animals are culled to prevent the spread of infection.
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Any country with a pig sector is at risk of the spread of the disease and its spread is most likely via meat arriving aboard ships and planes, which is incorrectly disposed of and by meat carried by individual travellers. The ASF causing virus is believed to have entered Europe for the first time in 1957 when it was introduced into Portugal from West Africa.
As per the latest update issued by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the current outbreak of ASF has affected China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Republic of Korea and Indonesia among others. In China, the first ASF outbreak was confirmed in August 2018 and since then more than 1 million pigs have been culled in the country. In Vietnam, the ASF outbreak was confirmed in February 2019 and since then over 6 million pigs have been culled.
Officials believe ASF came into India through Tibet into Arunachal Pradesh and then into Assam, the state with the highest population of pigs in the country. Even so, the route of infection remains unconfirmed.
Late last month, the Assam government decided to ban the slaughter and sale of pork awaiting test results of samples that were sent to the National Institute of High Security Animal Diseases (NIHSAD) in Bhopal. It was later confirmed that the samples were positive for ASF.
According to the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH), between 2018 and 2019, the disease spread was notified in three countries in Europe and 23 countries in Africa.
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In China (home to half of the world’s pig population), the outbreak of the disease led to cullings on a massive scale leading to an increase in the price of pork, the country’s favourite protein. The outbreak has not only affected pork consumers but small farmers as well, who do not have the resources to protect their pigs from the disease.
The Indian Express reported in May that for pig farmers in Assam, the disease has come as a “double whammy”, where their sales were already affected by the lockdown only to become worse with ASF since it ruined any prospects of establishing the northeastern states as a hub for the export of pork.
Globally as well, the situation is similar. According to an assessment published in the journal Nature Foods in April, economic models predict a global rise in pork prices inthe range of 17-85 percent. The unmet demand of pork is also likely to drive up the prices of other meats.
According to this assessment, the decline in pork production in China represents cuts in global production of pork to the tune of 9-34 per cent. Further, other than consumers and producers of pork, the disease outbreak will also have secondary effects as consumers try to substitute their pork consumption with alternative meats and foods, impacting their production and prices.