China’s race to produce ‘super pigs’ destined to fail amid haphazard biosecurity, experts say

Keegan Elmer

China should focus less on developing disease-resistant “super pigs” to protect its hog herd from infection and do more to improve basic biosecurity, analysts say, as several companies claim to be close to a breakthrough treatment for African swine fever.

China’s hog herd has begun to steadily rebuild after swine fever spread across the country a year and a half ago, killing or forcing the culling of 60 per cent of the pig population, according to authorities.

But poor biosecurity – including the transport of pigs in filthy trucks and a lack of disinfection at farms – still threatens the industry, observers said.

There is no commercially available vaccine for swine fever – which is not harmful to humans – but a number of researchers claim they are close developing one.

China’s Harbin Veterinary Research Institute, the country’s top research body on animal diseases, said last month it had developed a vaccine for African swine fever (ASF) that laboratory testing showed was safe and effective. However, it did not give a timetable on when it would be available for commercial use.

Meanwhile, Shandong Landsee Genetics, a company in China’s eastern Shandong province, was reported this week to have successfully bred ASF-resistant pigs. The pigs, called Lansibai-2, are from the large white breed, one of the most common raised in China.

When approached for comment, a spokeswoman for the company said the research was confidential and she was not authorised to speak to media.

Despite the apparent progress, analysts are generally sceptical that a silver bullet to prevent the disease will be developed on a large scale any time soon.

“Because this disease has been found in many countries, I don’t think there has been major progress [when it comes to eliminating the disease],” said Chenjun Pan, senior analyst for animal protein at Rabobank. “There have been some vaccines, but the effectiveness of the vaccines is not that satisfactory. So far there haven’t been any solutions from a medical perspective.”

There have been some vaccines, but the effectiveness of the vaccines is not that satisfactory

Chenjun Pan

China’s swine fever problem is complicated by an unwillingness from local governments to diagnose and report ASF cases, said E.W. Johnson, of Enable AgTech Consulting in Beijing. It was also made worse by basic hygiene problems, he added.

“Pigs with ASF are sold to slaughter every day, and dirty trucks are going everywhere, spreading the disease as much as they did when the ASF outbreak began,” Johnson said.

“There is no doubt that people are very excited and extremely zealous about these super-pigs. [But] China seems intent on living with ASF rather than getting rid of it.”

While the industry was closely watching the breeding research, vaccines or disease-resistant breeds would do little to help increase production in the short term, said Feng Yonghui, chief analyst at pork industry website Soozhu.com.

The whole global industry recognises that the greatest preventive measure is improving biosecurity

E.W. Johnson

“The most important problem now is how to control the ASF epidemic, and this is not the way to do it,” said Feng. “The whole global industry recognises that the greatest preventive measure is improving biosecurity.”

Improved hygiene can lower the risk of disease in production, said Feng, including sickness caused by bacteria and viruses, like transmissible gastroenteritis, a coronavirus found in pigs.

“It’s a system – you can’t just do one step in the process,” he said. “The whole industry has to study it, and we still need time to improve.”

Basic controls – like keeping pig transport trucks clean, or disinfecting protective equipment used by workers on pig farms – is simple but comes at a price, and some smaller pig farms are struggling to keep up.

“What we’re worried about are the people on the lower rungs of the ladder who aren’t able to keep up with better practises,” Feng said. “If we are to get pig stocks back up to where they were before the outbreak within three years, this is the key issue that stands in the way.”

China’s pork industry is at a turning point in production unlike at any other time in history, he said.

“In the past, when it came to upgrading production, or when the industry went into loss, all producers big and small began again at the same starting line,” he said. “That’s because there was no threat of disease. Now, those with money get to run first.”

Pork prices in China, the world’s top consumer and producer of pork, have surged since AFS began cutting back supply, driving margins up for both domestic and imported pork.

The world’s biggest pork processor, Hong Kong-listed WH Group, reported a 32 per cent jump in profits last year as record high pork prices in China boosted the value of the company’s exports from the United States and lifted margins on its China sales.

China’s total pork production in 2019 was 42.55 million tons, a decrease of 21.3 per cent from 2018, data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed. In 2018, the total pork output was 54.037 million tons, down 0.9 per cent from 2017.

While researchers race to find a cure for swine fever, new cases keep cropping up across the country. On Wednesday, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs said local authorities in Sichuan had detected infections in piglets transported from outside the province.

Another outbreak was recorded in Inner Mongolia, where local authorities detected the disease in a herd of 200 piglets on a farm in Ordos city, which killed 92 of the animals, according to the agriculture industry.

Authorities are also monitoring cases of ASF in piglets smuggled into the country and would launch a 60-day investigation into illegal transport of hogs this month.

Additional reporting by Liu Zhen

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