South Korea confirms first outbreak of African swine fever

South Korea has become the latest country affected by deadly African swine fever, after several pigs that died at a farm were found to have been infected with the virus, its agriculture ministry said Tuesday.

The outbreak was confirmed at a pig farm in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, a city close to the heavily fortified border with North Korea, said Kim Heyon-soo, the minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs.

In response, the South Korean government has raised the animal disease alert to the highest level of “severe.” A 48-hour nationwide lockdown on the movement of pigs in farms and slaughterhouses has been imposed to curb the spread of the disease, Kim told a press conference. New control posts and disinfection sites will also be installed to assist with quarantine work.

The minister added that almost 4,000 pigs at three farms, including the one where the outbreak reported, were to be culled by the end of Tuesday as a preventive measure.

African swine fever is an animal disease that has spread rapidly across Asia over the past few months, according to the World Organization for Animal Health. It is fatal for pigs and wild boars, and can be transmitted in a number of ways, including direct contact and contamination of food waste and feed.

A total of eight Asian countries, including China, Philippines, and North Korea, have reported outbreaks of the virus, which originated in Sub-Saharan Africa. China was the first in the region to detect the disease in August 2018. Several eastern European countries, as well as Russia, have also suffered outbreaks, though many of these have been restricted to wild boar.

Wantanee Kalpravidh, a regional manager of the UN’s Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Diseases, said it was difficult to control the spread of the virus in Asia due to the constant smuggling of pork products across borders.

“All countries in the region remain at risk of the disease introduction,” she told CNN.

But she also reiterated that there are “no concerns on public health threat and food safety” as the virus does not pose a risk to human health.

A pork crisis

African swine fever can cause serious production shortages and economic losses. Almost a third of China’s pig population, or more than 100 million pigs, has been wiped out by the virus, giving rise to a pork crisis. The average price for retailers had risen by nearly 70% by August compared to a year ago, forcing some cities to start tapping into their emergency pork reserves to stabilize supply.

North Korea also reported its first outbreak of the disease to the World Organization for Animal Health in May, when more than 70 pigs died in a cooperative farm, according to a statement by South Korea’s agricultural ministry.

South Korea, which reported a GDP of $1.62 trillion in 2018, is home to more than 11.3 million pigs, according to Statistics Korea.

“There are about 6,300 pig farms in the country,” Kim said.

The government would complete preliminary examinations of all pig farms “in the quickest time possible” to control the situation, he added.