Jul 18, 2019 | Updated: 10:03 AM EDT

China’s Pork Industry is Being Ravaged by African Swine Fever

May 15, 2019 06:22 AM EDT

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Sun Dawu's pigs began dropping dead last year from an unknown virus. Just months later, all 20,000 in one farm had died. Sun claims that of the 20,000 swine, 15,000 were killed by the virus. The other 5,000, however, were destroyed as a precaution. The culprit? African swine fever or ASF.

"It began with a few pigs a day, then it was hundreds," said Sun, a pig farmer and agricultural entrepreneur from Hebei province, China. "In the end, 800 pigs would die in a single day."

ASF is currently devastating China's pork industry, the largest in the world by far. Dutch bank Rabobank, which loans to the global agricultural sector, estimates the country's pig population could wither by a third in 2019-up to 200 million animals-through a combination of the virus and precautionary actions. To put it in perspective, that's almost as many pigs as in the US and Europe combined.

The virus is reportedly harmless to humans but deadly to pigs-and, so far, there is no cure or vaccine. Beginning in Africa, outbreaks were recorded in eastern Europe and Russia before it first appeared in China last August. It has since spread to other Asian countries, including Vietnam and Cambodia.

In March, the Chinese government said it had a "good control" of the epidemic. At a press conference last month, Beijing said ASF was not spreading as quickly as before. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, China's central authorities have taken the right steps to bring the virus under control.

"They've done everything they could possibly do to control the disease. They had a plan, they had a strategy, they have been responding very vigorously," said Vincent Martin, the FAO representative in China.

But the measure of the outbreak may be bigger than officials could have guessed, as some farmers have stated that the disease is not always acknowledged locally. Sun said preliminary testing by provincial officials at his Hebei farm was negative for ASF. However, after he posted pictures of the dead animals online, the country's Disease Prevention and Control Center tested them and confirmed they carried the virus.

Martin, from the FAO, cautioned that it could take years before the epidemic is ultimately controlled. "I'm not sure we can say it is under control because we know how complex the disease is," he said. "We have experience in other countries where it took years to get a handle on these diseases."

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