EVANSVILLE, Ind., April 10 (UPI) -- As African swine fever spreads across Asia, scientists with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have launched an intensive effort to find a vaccine.
The highly contagious virus kills most of the pigs that become infected. With no vaccine or treatment, economists predict devastating consequences should the disease enter the American herd.
"If it comes to the United States, we would have to close our export markets," said Jim Monroe, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council. "That would be catastrophic."
Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate teamed up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture shortly after the virus was reported in China to try and create a vaccine.
They've made some progress. So far, their task force has identified two potential vaccine candidates, but say it is far from creating an effective and usable vaccine.
"We've been working on a vaccine for 50 years," said Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian at the National Pork Producers Council. "It's a very complex virus. Ordinary viruses produce less than 10 proteins. African swine fever has 150. So there's been a lot of work trying to figure out which of the proteins will create a protective immunity."
The task force is genetically engineering weakened African swine fever viruses one by one, and testing them on pigs to see if they give the animals immunity, according to a DHS news release. The process is slow, as the scientists are not yet able to keep the genetically engineered cells alive for long.
"We need a better method," Luis Rodriguez, research leader of the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Foreign Animal Disease Research Unit, who is leading the vaccine development task force, said in a statement.
In the meantime, the USDA is also working with Customs and Border Protection to increase security at the border to stop infected pork products from entering the country.
"We understand the grave concern about the ASF situation overseas," Greg Ibach, the USDA's undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, said in a statement.
The disease first emerged in Africa in the 1920s and has since spread through parts of Europe and now Asia. China, which maintains roughly half the world's hog population, reported its first case last August. The virus has since spread to most of China's provinces, and has spilled into neighboring countries.
The virus does not infect humans.
The only option for containing the disease is to cull the animals. But that strategy is having limited success. The virus is hearty, and can survive on surfaces, in ticks, and in meat -- even after it is cooked.
"I heard a story about a producer who had to cull his pigs, and he cleaned everything as best he could, and waited a few months then brought in new pigs," said Michael Nepveux, an economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation. "They got sick again. This disease is really hard to get rid of."
Experts predict the epidemic will continue to worsen in Asia. And the more prevalent it becomes, the higher the likelihood the virus could penetrate America's borders.