The Philippines has reported its first cases of African swine fever, becoming the latest country hit by the disease that has killed pigs from Slovakia to China, pushing up pork prices worldwide.
The virus is not harmful to humans but causes haemorrhagic fever in pigs that almost always ends in death. There is no antidote or vaccine and the only known method to prevent the disease from spreading is a mass cull of affected livestock.
Over the last year ASF has spread rapidly in Asia. The first official outbreak was in China in August 2018, but it has since spread to Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Mongolia and North Korea.
The Philippine outbreak began with the identification of infected pigs in two towns near the Philippine capital, Manila, and authorities have culled more than 7,000 pigs within a one-kilometre (0.6-mile) radius, said the agriculture minister, William Dar.
He said the country was not facing an epidemic and urged Filipinos to continue eating pork, which is a critical market and accounts for 60% of meat consumption in the Philippines.
The Asian country is the world’s eighth biggest pork producer by volume and its swine industry is estimated at 260bn pesos (£4bn), according to the agriculture department.
Dar said 14 of 20 samples sent to a UK laboratory tested positive for African swine fever, but it would take a week to confirm how virulent the strain is.
The virus was first recorded in Rodriguez town, six miles east of Manila. Other undisclosed areas are being closely monitored for possible infection, he added.
“We have never been in an epidemic, just to highlight that. We are responding to the increased number of deaths of pigs,” Dar said.
Authorities suspect the swine fever cases stemmed from backyard hog raisers who feed pigs “swill”, leftover food scraps from hotels and restaurants.
The ministry added the virus could also be traced to smuggled frozen meat and returning overseas Filipino workers who brought back infected meat products.
China has been hit particularly hard by the virus; a report by Rabobank last week estimated that by the end of 2019 the national pig herd could halve as a result of the outbreak. There are suggestions that China will open up their emergency frozen pork reserves in order to deal with the problem. Prices there have doubled since July.
In countries like the US and Australia where the disease has not yet appeared, governments are stepping up checks at airports and dispersing advice on biosecurity. Experts estimate an outbreak in Australia would cost the country US$34bn (£27bn).
The head of the UK’s National Pig Association, Zoe Davies, has repeatedly warned of the dangers of ASF entering the UK. “We have always maintained that the biggest threat to the UK pig herd is from infected meat products that are illegally brought in from infected regions that then find their way into the UK pig herd or feral boar population,” she said recently.
“There’s a possibility that [ASF’s] here already, perhaps in somebody’s fridge, because our checks on most of our borders right now are not very good. The risk is high – and it’s a big concern for us as an industry.”
In May, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization said pork prices had risen by up to 50% both in China and on the Chicago futures exchange.