In August of 2018, we began receiving the first reports of an outbreak of African Swine Fever (ASF) in China. I ended up spending the majority of 2019 helping pork producers fight that devastating disease in Asia. I’ve said many times in the past few months that if anyone had told me in January that my 2020 was going to be even stranger than my 2019, I’d have laughed at them. Well, my 2020 has been much stranger than my 2019 and, ironically, it’s due to another virus but this time it’s a virus affecting humans, SARS-CoV-2, the type of coronavirus that causes COVID-19. ASF doesn’t affect humans and all indications at this point are that COVID-19 is not a serious risk to pigs but I can’t avoid noticing the similarities between the two. The similarities are not so much in the viruses themselves, they are quite different, but more so in the lessons we’ve learned (or should have learned) from the movement of and response to the outbreaks caused by the viruses. I’ll briefly discuss a few of those lessons.
I’m often asked why ASF moved so quickly through China and SE Asia. As you might expect, the reasons are many, but one of the main reasons is population density. In the case of ASF, I’m primarily talking about pig density but because of the structure of the industries in many parts of Asia, there is a lot of overlap between the pig and human populations which leads to additional problems. Asia has the most pig dense areas in the world and that creates unique and very difficult challenges to curbing the spread of a contagious virus that can survive for long periods in the environment. As I’ve often said, prior to ASF, half the pigs in the world lived in China on about 3% of the world’s landmass.
With COVID-19, we’ve seen similar patterns with the virus moving much more effectively through more population dense areas. In fact, maps of coronavirus outbreaks often look like population density maps. While it’s not surprising that viruses would move more effectively through denser populations, the concentration of cases in major metropolitan areas was eye opening. New York City, the most population dense city in America, still accounts for a huge percentage of the deaths in the country, nearly 14%. While NYC is, by any definition, a big city, it still only represents less than 3% of the US population.
These trends have not gone unnoticed and changes related to this phenomenon are likely to endure long past the direct impact of these viruses. In response to ASF, many countries in Asia are looking to revise their supply chains to a cold supply model instead of the fresh supply chains that still serve the majority of consumers in major pork producing countries like China, Vietnam and the Philippines. This shift will allow pig populations to be moved further away from people population centers which will reduce transportation risk and some of the direct risks from wet markets.
With COVID-19, the pandemic may have a major impact on well-established trends towards the growth of large cities. Not only have people noted the difference between the infection rates of the virus in big cities with smaller cities and more rural areas, many have been exposed to remote work for the first time. This exposure will undoubtedly result in greater acceptance of remote work by companies and employees alike and if they don’t have to be in the office often, many will wonder why they’re paying the high rent and taxes that it takes to live in a big city. For the first time in our lifetimes, downtown real estate in major cities may take a significant downturn.
Need for Quick Response
Anyone who has studied epidemics and pandemics will tell you, quick actions by all relevant parties is critical to mounting an effective response. One of the themes that has emerged from the coronavirus response is that countries that responded quickly and aggressively have, so far at least, fared much better than those countries with a more delayed response. Many of the quick-response countries are in Asia which is not surprising considering that region has dealt with similar challenges fairly recently, most notably, the SARS outbreak in 2003. Part of the reason their response was quicker and more effective than many countries in the west is that they had existing plans based on their previous experience with epidemics. It is too early to make any clear conclusions, but it seems obvious at this point that quick response will be one of the key “learnings” from the pandemic.
This is certainly one of the key learnings from the ASF outbreak in Asia and Europe. Governments that were slow or ineffective in their responses were the hardest hit while countries that were relatively quick and aggressive in their responses, like Russia, South Korea and several European countries, have been able to control or at least slow the spread of the virus. In many countries in Asia the virus continues to move almost without impediment. China, for example, has basically decided that the virus is endemic and they will just have to find a way to live with it.
I was told by a producer in China a few months ago, “The window to control this virus, if it ever really existed in China, has closed. We missed the opportunity to get it under control and now we’re going to have to live with it until and if there’s a vaccine.”
Importance of Biosecurity and Personal Hygiene
I and many others in our industry have done little more in the past 18 months than talk about biosecurity. African Swine Fever has no vaccine or effective treatment. The only proven way to effectively manage the disease is exclusion through sound biosecurity protocols, not just on the farm, but at other sites in the supply chain and in transportation. One of the main reasons for the dramatic impact of ASF in Asia was the poor overall biosecurity and the relatively slow pace of improvement in response to the disease.
The COVID-19 response has, from the very beginning had a major personal hygiene component. “Wash your hands” has become a mantra for public health officials. People wearing PPE such as masks, gloves and face shields has become a valuable tool in slowing the spread of the virus and quarantines (or as we call it in swine production…downtime) have been useful strategies for many countries.
I believe, and certainly hope, that these are lasting legacies of both viruses. Biosecurity and personal hygiene practices are simple but extraordinarily valuable tools in the fight against health challenges whether in animals or humans.
During the early days of the ASF outbreak in China, access to reliable, accurate diagnostic testing was a major challenge. This had been an ongoing challenge in China even before African Swine Fever but ASF exposed the depth of the issue faced by the industry. When producers and veterinarians don’t have access to fast, accurate diagnostic testing, it makes managing an outbreak exceedingly more difficult.
It’s no surprise to most people that a lack of testing capacity has also hamstrung efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in many countries around the world. An inability to determine a reasonably accurate case fatality rate left policy makers and business leaders to make decisions with woefully incomplete information possibly causing an overreaction that resulted in unnecessary but catastrophic economic destruction with little public health benefit.
The industry and government officials should strongly consider ways to ensure that surge capacity for needed testing is available in the event of an outbreak of human or animal disease. They should also focus not only on capacity but on timeliness of the results because, as we’ve already discussed, days and hours become very valuable in scenarios involving a rapidly spreading virus. In our modern pork systems, many pigs are moved every day and in our modern society, people move more quickly and to further destinations than any time in history.
The Cost of Disease Outbreaks
I’ve already discussed the lack of preparation as a major factor in the spread of COVID-19 and ASF. One of the reasons for the lack of preparation is the costs. There’s an old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and that expression has never been more relevant than in this case. Without a doubt, preparation is expensive. Last fall, representatives of the industry, government officials and other interested parties from 14 states in the US participated in a 4-day exercise to simulate an ASF outbreak. I’ve not seen estimates of the cost of the exercise, but I think it’s safe to say that it was not cheap to pull off. The lessons learned, however, were invaluable. I’ve spoken to several participants who said they were shocked at the vulnerabilities that were revealed.
As expensive as these exercises and other preparation efforts can be, the cost is miniscule compared to the cost of an outbreak. Some researchers have estimated that the total cost of the ASF outbreak to the Chinese economy could exceed $100 Billion USD. Obviously, the cost of COVID-19 will be staggering as well. Nearly $7 Trillion USD has already been spent by the US government in coronavirus relief and congress is currently discussing additional spending. The International Monetary Fund is currently projecting that global debt will exceed global GDP for 2020. Needless to say, we will be paying for this for many years, perhaps decades to come.
Some things simply can’t be prepared for but it’s hard to argue that there weren’t significant opportunities to be more prepared for a challenge like COVID-19. Ironically, some of the preparation that was conducted for ASF ended up being very useful in the swine industry’s response to coronavirus challenges. In the previously mentioned ASF simulation, one of the major unresolved opportunities that was identified was how to carry out mass euthanasia. The plans that were developed by producers to prepare for ASF-related euthanasia came in very handy when COVID-19 related disruptions at packing plants created a need to euthanize animals that were not able to be processed.
Supply Chain Fragility
Both ASF in Asia and COVID-19 globally have shone the light on deficiencies in supply chains when it comes to responding to “black swan” type events like ASF and COVID-19. As those deficiencies have become obvious, focus has shifted to improving resiliency of operations. ASF in China identified issues around animal transportation and biosecurity challenges at processing facilities. The COVID-19 related disruptions at meat processing facilities in the US and elsewhere are well documented.
While these issues should be carefully examined and we should look for opportunities to improve resiliency, we must also not forget the value of efficiency. Our global supply chains have become quite efficient and the more efficient the supply chains the bigger the challenges related to COVID-19. While we must work to improve the resiliency of our systems, we must take care to preserve as much of that efficiency as possible. While it is true that efficiency and resiliency tend to be negatively correlated, that is not an absolute. Innovation can be the bridge between the two. For example, new technologies that allow us to reduce our dependency on human labor in processing plants and on farms can preserve or even improve efficiencies while also improving resiliency. Those types of innovation are not always possible however and sometimes we have to simply trade efficiency for resiliency. While some of those decisions are unavoidable, we should make those decisions after careful thought and consideration and focus on application of this strategy primarily in strategically important areas.
Both ASF and COVID-19 have shaken economies and industries around the world. Many of the challenges that were exposed by these viruses will result in major shifts in strategy and direction. For me, having been on the front lines of both viruses in some capacity has allowed me an interesting perspective. One of the most obvious takeaways from my experiences have been the similarities of the issues that have been exposed by these viruses and the responses to them. I hope that as an industry, we’re able to internalize these lessons and use them to inform efforts to build a stronger, more efficient and more resilient industry in the future.
About the Author: Todd Thurman is an International Swine Management Consultant and Founder of SwineTex Consulting Services, LLC. SwineTex is a US-Based provider of consulting and training services to the global pork industry. To learn more about SwineTex Consulting Services, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website at www.swinetex.com.