For almost a year now, African swine fever has plagued pig populations in China to the point where it has been declared a national crisis. Now, an investigation by Caixin Global reveals a far more distressing case: many of the swine fever outbreaks are being covered up by local authorities and we have yet to see its true extent.
Caixin Global, the news site of the Beijing-based financial media corporation, has published a report adding a whole new layer to the ongoing crisis. According to their findings, local governments throughout the country are underreporting cases of African swine fever – which is fatal to pigs but not known to harm humans – and ignoring potential cases of the disease.
Farmers also told Reuters that many of these outbreaks are being covered up. This is, in part, due to local officials who are resistant to verifying the disease to avoid paying the required compensation to pig breeders. These breeders are entitled to 1,200 yuan, or approximately $180, per slaughtered pig.
The Caixin report states that even the richest of Chinese cities may not be able to afford the compensation they would have to deliver. Rural provinces will struggle even more. If local officials were to verify every case, they would be paying millions of yuan as compensation to breeders.
This has led breeders to sell their pigs off as quickly as possible – whether they're infected or not.
Chinese authorities, meanwhile, are claiming that the number of African swine fever cases have decreased. In a press briefing, Vice Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Yu Kanghzhen emphasized that there were only 44 new cases in 2019. But the underreporting may be skewing these numbers.
“When it comes to the underreporting of the disease, though we can’t guarantee zero cases [are not reported], we will definitely have zero tolerance for it,” Yu said.
China has over 440 million pigs, which is half the planet’s total. The disease is said to have spread to almost every province in China and, worryingly, to other parts of East and Southeast Asia, according to a report by the United Nations. New outbreaks have been disclosed from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar.
The DNA virus is equipped with many genes and proteins that are particularly effective at fending off a pig’s immune system. This makes it notoriously difficult to fight, according to a Bloomberg report. In May, Chinese state media revealed that government research teams will begin conducting trials on a potential vaccine to battle the disease.
Beijing admitted in July that there were “weaknesses” in the handling of the epidemic. This was cited by many media outlets as a rare admission of failure on the part of the Chinese government.
The first case of African swine fever was declared in August 2018 in China’s northeastern city, Shengyan. The disease, which is both highly contagious and fatal, is most rampant in Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. According to the World Organization for Animal Health, the pig mortality rate could be as high as 100 percent.
To combat the initial outbreak, China killed all the pigs in Shenyang that were believed to have the disease. Over the past year, 1.16 million pigs have been slaughtered.
Scientists have suggested that African swine flu arrived in China in the same manner that it ravaged Europe in 2007: through waste. Pigs exposed to contaminated swill, food-waste containing pork, or even scraps of food have been afflicted with the epidemic.
The flu is predicted to slice China’s pig supply by 20 to 30 percent. At the moment, there are no known vaccines or treatments, which will leave China short in pig supplies.
China is the world’s number one producer of pork. The country’s pork industry is valued at US$128 billion. If the current trajectory maintains, this might soon change.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.