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African swine fever: the most challenging animal health issue the world is facing

African Swine Fever (ASF) is back in the headlines after having been detected for the first time in mainland Italy, North Macedonia and other countries around the globe. That puts pressure on pork producers at a time when war in Ukraine is threatening food security and autonomy in general. EU Head of Animal Health, Francisco Gordejo Reviriego, talks about ASF in Europe and the Commission’s role in keeping it under control.

date:  31/03/2022

What explains the wide spread of ASF in the world? 

ASF is an infectious lethal disease affecting pigs and wild boars, which can be easily transmitted via direct contact with the animal or via dissemination of contaminated meat or infected material.  

Wild boar are nature’s super-spreaders, carrying the virus across large swatches of countryside in many regions. The territory they cover and the fact that they are wild makes eradicating the disease very difficult. In addition, poor biosecurity in some pig farms results in continuous ASF outbreaks, particularly where small-scale backyard farming is widely practised.   

Making matters worse is that the virus is very resistant.  It can survive for a long time and be carried long distances, even by humans. That’s why it’s currently regarded as the world’s most challenging animal health issue. ASF reached Europe in 2007 through food waste from a ship coming from Mozambique to Georgia, and spread rapidly to many countries in that region, including Russia and Belarus.  In 2014 ASF was detected also in the EU, at the Lithuanian border with Belarus and now, in 2022, 10 Member States are affected by this disease.  

Italy is the latest Member State affected by the disease. Are you satisfied with the Italian response to the outbreak, and how is the Commission helping?  

Indeed, in January 2022, ASF was detected in wild boar in mainland Italy. Italy has managed to effectively detect and contain the disease in a limited area, stopping its spread. 

Once the presence of ASF was confirmed, the Commission, in collaboration with Italy, immediately adopted relevant EU legislation to define the parameters of the infected zone. With boundaries set, other measures could then be taken, such as banning the dispatch of pigs and pork-products from the infected area, so as not to expose other  Member States and third countries to increased risk.  

The EU zoning, published in the Official Journal, not only helps contain risks, it also protects trade from infection–free areas. Member States and third countries that recognise EU zoning can continue receiving livestock and products from safe areas.   

The EU Veterinary Emergency Team, made up of the best ASF experts, was also dispatched by the Commission to Italy. This was to help local authorities on location to fine-tune disease control measures to fit their specific needs.  

On a positive note,– Czechia and Belgium – have managed to eradicate ASF in wild boars some years ago. Their national experts are active in the EU Veterinary Emergency Team and share their knowledge and experience with other Member States. 

What has been done at EU level to address the ASF challenge, and what is needed to eradicate ASF? 

Since ASF arrived in Europe in 2007, the Commission has launched a series of initiatives to strengthen preparedness for the disease’s possible spread into the Union. These initiatives are continuously implemented and updated in close cooperation with all Member States. 

Since 2014, when ASF was first detected in the EU, the EU has allocated over EUR 230 million to support Member States and neighbouring third countries (such as Ukraine) in the fight against ASF. 

The EU has succeeded in controlling ASF outbreaks by applying numerous measures related to EU legislation and guidelines, scientific advice from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the EU reference laboratory; by collaborating with international (such as OIE, GFTADs) and regional authorities and by helping to finance border controls, audits, awareness and training programmes, and research.   These measures have helped keep the majority of the EU free of ASF and have limited its spread in the EU, especially compared to other regions like Asia.   

EU scientific and technical knowledge of ASF increases every day, but given the disease’s complex epidemiology and the fact that there is no vaccine, it will not be eradicated on a large-scale any time soon.  Strong global commitment and innovation are needed to develop successful ASF vaccines and accomplish that.  

ASF arrived in the EU through its Eastern borders. Will the war in Ukraine affect our fight against the disease? 

No country is safe from ASF. It is a global challenge that requires global action. We need to cooperate across sectors and across countries to defeat it.   

In Europe, this kind of close collaboration was  established years ago through GF-TADs (a joint OIE and FAO initiative) with support from the Commission. Colleagues from the competent veterinary authority of Ukraine have always been considered as valuable partners and took an active part in regional discussions on ASF. 

The war in Ukraine has a devastating impact on many areas of life and public health, including on joint European efforts to prevent, control and eradicate ASF in the region. That said, the EU is actively supporting Ukraine, bordering Member States and Moldova, and doing its utmost to ensure that ASF outbreaks are limited and contained.   


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