A Vicious, Untreatable Killer Leaves China Guessing
by Raymond Zhong and Ailin Tang, April 22, 2019
XIJIAHE, China — The plague’s victims die gruesomely.
First, a high fever. The skin goes flushed, purplish. There is a discharge from the eyes and nose. Bloody diarrhea. And within days, death. The survival rate is near zero.
By China’s official estimates, the present outbreak of African swine fever, which affects pigs but is harmless to humans, has already been catastrophic. More than a million pigs have been culled, according to the Chinese government. A billion-plus pork-loving people are facing much tighter supplies. The need to fill the gap is influencing meat markets worldwide.
But the reality of the epidemic may be grimmer still. Several farmers said in interviews that they had not reported potential infections among their animals to the local authorities. Others said officials had not responded quickly to reported outbreaks.
As a result, many farmers and livestock analysts say they assume that the highly contagious disease has infected more pigs, in more places, than Chinese officials have acknowledged.
When Ge Xiuxiu’s pigs started dying this year, he did not tell the authorities. Mr. Ge, 48, doubts that the government can afford to keep its promise to compensate farmers like him who have been affected by the outbreak.
“Reporting it wouldn’t have made a difference,” he said, standing outside his farm in Xijiahe, a village in China’s Shandong Province. “Who would have done anything about it? Whoever does anything has to pay up.”
The need to get a grip on African swine fever could not be more urgent for China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of pork. Yet the official response seems to fit a pattern from previous crises involving public health and safety in the country, including an AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in the early 2000s and a widespread tainting of baby formula in 2008.
The authorities’ tendency to hush up such problems engenders public distrust. Distrust makes the problems even harder to solve.
In the current crisis, the distrust is being felt not just by farmers and industry specialists, but by consumers as well. Some Chinese shoppers, skeptical of assurances that the disease does not harm human health, are starting to shun pork.
African swine fever, for which no treatment or vaccine exists, has spread to every Chinese province and region, and has also jumped the border into Cambodia, Mongolia and Vietnam. Analysts at the Dutch bank Rabobank, which lends heavily to the global agriculture industry, have predicted that China will produce 150 million to 200 million fewer pigs this year because of deaths from infection or culling. That would be a hefty chunk of the 700 million pigs slaughtered in China in 2018.
The Chinese economy, already slowing, is starting to feel the effects. Higher pork prices helped push inflation to a five-month high in March. The nation’s stock of live pigs has fallen by a fifth from a year ago. The government, anticipating shortfalls, has bought frozen pork to build up its strategic reserve. Hog futures in the United States have rallied as traders bet that China will buy more American meat.
China has introduced new hygiene requirements, imposed quarantines and restricted the transporting of swine. But such measures will be of limited use if the authorities have an incomplete picture of the problem — or if they have more a complete picture that they do not make public.
“There’s no way to control something that you don’t acknowledge exists,” said Christine McCracken, a Rabobank analyst. In places where infections were not reported or acknowledged, farmers and pork producers might not be taking adequate safety precautions, she said. They may even be selling and processing infected animals. African swine fever can linger for weeks or months in uncooked and frozen pork.
“It only takes one infected piece of meat entering the chain to muck it all up again,” Ms. McCracken said.
The government has threatened to punish farms that do not immediately report outbreaks. Across China, though, dead pigs have been found heaped in rivers and ditches, suggesting that farmers disposed of them without notifying the authorities.