Future Human

European Authorities Are Deploying Helicopters, Drones, and Sniffer Dogs To Halt the Swine Fever Pandemic

The race is on to contain it while it’s still possible

The new border fences stretch for hundreds of kilometers. Helicopters and drones circle overhead, scanning for sick individuals while biological samples are ferried to labs for analysis. As fatalities mount, soldiers scour wide areas, searching for corpses. Sniffer dogs have been trained to locate the dead.

This is not a nightmarish vision of what is to come during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the reality on the ground as Europe reckons with a deadly virus affecting wild boar and pigs.

The African Swine Fever (ASF) virus is a merciless killer. Nearly 100% of infected pigs die. There is no cure or commercially available vaccine. The virus was first detected in Kenya in 1921, and, having circulated ever more widely for decades, is now considered a pandemic by experts at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Since late 2018, ASF has caused havoc in China and has badly affected other countries in Asia, parts of Africa, and Western Europe. It is yet to reach North America, but experts are worried that it will continue its steady march across the globe, devastating ever more pig farms and raising the price of pork, a staple food for billions of people worldwide.

“Covid is fast and therefore also more dramatic,” says Dirk Pfeiffer, PhD, a veterinary epidemiologist at City University of Hong Kong. “Whereas this thing is slow and patient and it’ll get to most places of the world where you’ve got pigs.”

The turmoil unleashed by ASF has caused Pfeiffer and others to question whether the scale of global meat production is sustainable. Ultimately, they say, today’s industrialized farming systems must acknowledge their role in driving the spread of diseases like ASF.

For now, though, the battle to contain the virus for as long as possible is drawing on a bizarre range of technologies, from drones to thermal imaging and electrified fences. Can it be stopped?

On September 10, authorities in Germany discovered the country’s first case of ASF in a wild boar. Since then, veterinarians have confirmed more than a hundred cases in these wild pigs, known locally as Wildschwein. It’s thought the disease spread across the border from neighboring Poland, where it has circulated for years among boar and, occasionally, farmed pigs. The virus’s arrival in Germany had one major and immediate impact: Within 48 hours, China and several other countries halted all imports of German pork. The price of pork in Brazil rocketed, in part because China massively increased its imports of Brazilian pork after cutting Germany out.

“This thing is slow and patient and it’ll get to most places of the world where you’ve got pigs.”

China is the world’s biggest producer and consumer of pork, and in 2019 it had the worst ASF outbreak on record. More than 100 million pigs died or were culled thanks to the virus, causing food supply issues and a spike in pork prices. The country’s recent “clean plate” campaign, in which people are encouraged to avoid food waste so that the country can remain food secure, is in part a response to this situation.

ASF is less likely to hammer farms in western Europe because biosecurity controls are tighter there. However, now that the virus is tightening its grip on wild boar populations, a race is on to contain it while that’s still possible.

Authorities in Germany have erected fenced areas within which wild boar are to be shot, in theory establishing ASF-free zones. Police using quadcopter drones fitted with cameras recently found a gang of boar huddled together on an island in the middle of a river. In this footage, the swine appeared to be dead or dying — but on a follow-up inspection, the boar had vanished. They had just been sleeping.

Wildlife officers are even using thermal imaging to try and locate the carcasses of boar that have died from the virus, since their bodies can stay warm for days. Army and sniffer dog patrols have also been sent out to locate dead individuals. The ASF virus can survive in the environment for many months, and boar are known to touch and sometimes feed on the carcasses of others — an easy way for the virus to spread.

It’s no mean feat to locate the remains of infected boar. The animals tend to die in overgrown, shaded areas, Daniel Beltran-Alcrudo, an animal health officer at the FAO, tells Future Human. Snow in the coming months will make their bodies even harder to pinpoint. Cold temperatures also preserve the virus and could lead to onward infections when the snow melts.

“When spring comes and the snow disappears, all the wild boar carcasses that were underneath protected by the snow will be exposed,” says Beltran-Alcrudo.

The FAO has also helped develop an update to a mobile app that allows people to report dead boar carcasses to the organization, he says. Every pandemic has an app, these days.

Authorities in Germany anticipated the spread of ASF from Poland and have encouraged hunters to target wild boar, offering small financial incentives equivalent to around $50 per kill. Last hunting season, 1 million boar were shot as a result. This caused a surplus of wild boar meat on the market, which has been even harder to sell because the Covid-19 pandemic reduced demand, says Hannes König, PhD, a researcher at the Leibniz Center for Agricultural Landscape Research.

“All the restaurants closed as well, for quite some time, so the refrigerators and storages are all full with game meat,” he tells Future Human.

The presence of ASF in wild boar has already had economic consequences in Germany. But there is still huge pressure to ensure the virus does not enter pig farms and abattoirs where domestic animals are reared and slaughtered, respectively.

“If the virus goes endemic in wild boar in Germany, I think that would be a huge problem because there will be a continuous threat to domestic animals,” says Wim van der Poel, PhD, senior scientist at Wageningen Bioveterinary Research in the Netherlands. He also expects that it is only a matter of time before the virus spreads even further, to his country and beyond.

While outbreaks of ASF may appear to be a local problem wherever they occur, the big picture suggests otherwise. The rise of animal diseases like bird flu, swine flu, and ASF are signs that something is awry with the way we produce meat these days, argues Pfeiffer. And because ASF can become endemic in wild pig populations, there’s little chance of eradicating it.

“We have to eat less meat, that’s the bottom line,” he says.

“It’s not about stopping it. You can’t,” adds Pfieffer. “It’s about slowing down spread and learning to live with it.”

Pfeiffer says that the scale of today’s livestock farming makes it particularly difficult to contain and control infectious diseases in animals. Large, intensive farms have a high density of animals, meaning pathogens can spread more easily. While biosecurity and medicines can control this situation, ultimately it can lead to pathogens becoming resistant to treatments, like antibiotics, and spreading even more aggressively than before.

Switching to a food production system in which many smaller farms produce the same amount of meat is not the answer, he says, because the quality of biosecurity across many different farms is hard to guarantee. Society as a whole needs to rethink its consumption of meat.

“We have to eat less meat, that’s the bottom line,” he says.

This may already be happening, though not by choice. In China, the price of pork remains high because of last year’s devastating outbreak and the current ban on German imports. This means China’s 1.4 billion residents now have access to millions of tons less protein than they once did. As an article on pork industry news site The Pig Site recently noted, that means they’re simply eating less of it.

With ASF outbreaks likely to keep popping up around the world, chances are people everywhere could experience a similar shift in the years to come.

Freelance science and technology journalist. Based in Northern Ireland.