BEIJING/HANOI (BLOOMBERG) - African swine fever is re-emerging in Asia, threatening to upend efforts to replenish national herds after the virus killed tens of millions of pigs in the region and created a huge shortage of meat protein.
Fresh outbreaks have been reported in China and Vietnam this year, and the disease has even landed on Malaysia's shores. While new cases are scattered and isolated, they've put governments on notice that the virus is alive and well and there could be dire consequences if it's not kept under control.
African swine fever is deadly for pigs but not known to harm humans. With no commercial vaccine available yet, authorities are relying on strict biosecurity measures and the culling of susceptible animals to keep the disease in check. Here's a breakdown of the latest situation by country.
China, home to half the world's hogs, is the hardest hit by African swine fever since reporting its first outbreak in 2018. More cases of the virus, which the country thought was under control, have been found in places such as Hebei, Henan, Sichuan, Yunnan and Xinjiang. Hong Kong too reported a case on a farm.
The latest outbreak includes new variants that are milder but harder to detect, casting doubts over the government goal of achieving a full herd recovery by mid-year. The country's progress on rebuilding pig numbers is being closely watched by global traders as it will define import needs for feed grains and meat this year. China bought record amounts of soybeans, corn and meat from overseas suppliers in 2020, triggering price spikes across the board.
There are expectations that China's pork prices, a key determinant of inflation, could stay high for an extended period, while meat imports continue to climb to fresh records. In a sign of government nervousness over the latest outbreaks, the farm ministry has vowed to intensify a crackdown on illegal vaccines that have been linked to the emergence of new strains.
Lin Guofa, a senior analyst at Bric Agriculture Group, estimates the decline in hog breeding capacity will be capped at 10% this year because the disease is confined to northern regions and the situation is relatively stable elsewhere.
Vietnam has culled about 2,000 pigs this year through late February following small flare-ups of African swine fever, according to the agriculture ministry, which said the situation is still under control. More than 20 regions nationwide have reported fresh outbreaks.
The country's hog population was 27.3 million as of the end of December, or 89 per cent of the total recorded before the disease struck in 2019 and resulted in the loss of almost 6 million pigs. The country expects to start producing its vaccine against the disease from late June or early July.
Malaysia had its first ever African swine fever outbreak last month and said 3,000 pigs in the state of Sabah would be culled. Investigations started after the death of a wild boar and were extended after laboratory samples confirmed the virus in other pigs. This included the Bornean bearded pig, a breed classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
In an update on March 7, the Sabah government said the virus has spread to other districts but commercial pig farms that supply most of the state's pork products remain free of the disease.
"Even though ASF does not infect humans, it is capable of causing great economic damage as well as disrupting the well-being of our society," Deputy Chief Minister Jeffrey Kitingan said.
South Korea, which hasn't reported an outbreak since October, said it will bolster preventive measures ahead of the wild boars' breeding season from April to May. Wayward feral pigs have been the main culprit in the spread of the disease from the country's northern border to local farms.
In late February, the nation strengthened border quarantine amid the reports of new cases in other parts of Asia, according to the agriculture ministry.