Millions of pigs across Asia are being culled, burned and buried. Is this a tragic but frustratingly inevitable consequence of the latest lethal outbreak of African Swine Fever (ASF) — or is there more that can be done?
At AFN, we believe the latter, having reported extensively on the raft of new tech coming to the fore to combat the spread of ASF. There are also many ways new tech can help policymakers, retailers and producers respond better to the global protein fallout expected to hit supply chains over the next six months.
My time spent scouting out various ASF tech solutions at the Asia-Pacific Agri Tech Innovation Week in Singapore has given me cause for cautious optimism. There was plenty of talk about swift advances in vaccinology. Quite a few attendees informed me about the very real prospect of gene editing pigs to give them immunity, while others mentioned how tele-medicine can help improve pig welfare, and partly automate the veterinary process with AI-driven pattern recognition. On the biosecurity and supply chain integrity front, that apparent cure for almost all things of course came up — good old blockchain.
Drastic and daunting
Even with these sorts of ideas in the mix, the situation remains drastic and daunting. On the fringes of one event, I was handed a recent report by Rabobank which lays bare the extent and intensity of damage already done in China. “Restocking will likely take around five years,” the report cautions, highlighting some of the dangers of doing so while the virus is still uncontained and untreatable. The report estimates that China, the world’s largest pig producer, has already lost up to half of its 430 million or so hogs to the disease or cullings — a far higher loss than official Chinese statistics convey. On a brighter note, biosecurity in China is expected to become “more important,” and “against a lot of uncertainties, commercialisation of a vaccine might happen in the next one to three years.”
One contender for where these vaccines might come from is the UK’s Pirbright Institute, which is currently developing a live attenuated vaccine and a subunit vaccine. They are also working with ViroVet to produce ASF antivirals that could, the Institute claims, “lower virus replication in pigs and limit clinical signs, which would form an important part of any feed-based strategy to control the virus.”
China, Vietnam, the US, and Australia all have labs racing to find a vaccine of their own that can be developed and distributed affordably and safely. Chinese state media recently reported how the country’s Harbin Veterinary Research Institute has two vaccine candidates proven in laboratory tests to offer immunity to the disease. Scant details have been offered to support this, though there are other reports of illegal and perhaps bogus vaccines already doing the rounds on some farms. Meanwhile, the Vietnam News Agency struck an optimistic chord of its own in a report gathered by Reuters: Agriculture Minister Nguyen Xuan Cuong believes his country is “on the right track, and we will soon have a vaccine,” he is quoted as saying. Developed at the Vietnam National University of Agriculture, the vaccine has been tested in its laboratory and at three farms in northern Vietnam, Cuong mentioned via VNA.
In the US, Politico reported six crucial missing years more than a decade ago, where the country turned its back on ASF vaccinology research, a process that can take a long time to gather pace. For now, the US has been making up lost ground, but still relies heavily on its ageing Plum Island Animal Disease Centre. To a lesser extent, there’s work afoot at Kansas State University, too. But more research facilities are needed to study the virus, according to researcher and Kansas State University professor Megan Niederwerder. She told Politico she believes ASF is still not fully understood, which hinders efforts to develop a vaccine. The vaccines for ASF so far would need to be live, scientists say, which mean transporting, storing and administering a live but weakened version of the virus. Pigs have to be given a manageable dose of a virus with enough of its perilous genes stripped away — advanced gene-editing tools can be a help here — but there needs to still be enough of the lethal genes to allow the pig to adapt its immune system to defend itself from the real thing — a hard balance.
In a pessimistic scenario where an affordable, distributable vaccine does not emerge, the US could eventually ramp its efforts to new heights, once its Plum Island lab gets replaced by the National Bio and Agro-defence Facility in Manhattan, Kansas, a facility that is set to cost $1.25 billion and will open by 2023.
Aussies on alert for ASF
In Australia and New Zealand, alarm is mounting too. The Aussies have a research centre of their own tasked with finding a cure for ASF: the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL). A report by the state broadcaster ABC nicely details their sophisticated biosecurity contingency plans; here, heat mapping software could prove useful to track the spread of the virus and set up effective quarantine zones.
Of course, as Japan prepares to prevent the arrival of this contagion to its own shores, it is worth bearing in mind that it is also about low-tech deterrence through effective regulations. The country is changing its laws to penalise anyone bringing in unauthorized meat products. Currently, violators face up to three years in prison, or a fine of up to $9,200.
Meat detection technology at the border could help those Japanese border guards, but there is also a lot that can be done at the disease detection stage on the farms themselves. Symptoms for the highly contagious disease — which can only be contracted, at least for now, by pigs both wild and domestic — are numerous. ASF produces a variety of clinical signs such as fever and functional disorders of the digestive and respiratory systems. One problem identified during my time in Singapore was how it is presently hardly in the farmer’s interest to flag that their pigs have contracted ASF. Much better to try and sell them on or slaughter them before symptoms show even more blatantly, so as not to have to lose out on money that might be needed to pay back loans. Fintech for sophisticated compensation mechanisms may help here. But also improvements in disease detection software are clearly useful technologies. China is as advanced as anywhere on the use of IoT; so on-farm sensors could monitor pig health and welfare, and the use of AI to detect illness patterns at an early stage can be useful to both owners and regulators trying to find where the disease is spreading from.
Just before Singapore, I heard from Chris Bomgaars, a former pig farmer and now the founder of EveryPig, a tele-veterinary startup. Based in Florida, his company remotely monitors farms across the world and is running a pilot project in Brasil. He says his app is available in seven languages, including Vietnamese, Korean, and, most recently, Chinese mandarin. His driving point is that ASF simply reinforces the fact that current veterinary systems are falling short on animal welfare, and if things don’t change, there will just be other outbreaks of disease.
“My father was a veterinarian,” says Bomgaars, “I saw him run a mixed animal practice. I grew up seeing him taking calls, running around, spending so many hours out on the road.” Looking back, he now describes this process as “inefficient and outdated …Telemedicine is definitely the future of swine veterinary practice.”
He mentioned how his company uses AI to seek out correlations between symptoms and mortalities, pulling in data from sources like water consumption, the weather, and other sources. If there’s any consolation for diseases like ASF, says Bomgaars, it is that it should force substantial improvements in animal welfare and biosecurity “through technology, technology that has now been available for a while, and could save the lives of millions of pigs.”
Plant-based spare ribs
That all sounds intuitive enough. But there are other distinct groups of entrepreneurs eager to play a role in this crisis, at least to see themselves as making up some of the protein shortfall. These are the makers of alternate proteins that mimic pork. As AgFunder’s freshly written White Paper suggests, the world needs to buckle up for a rise in alternative protein production and consumption in the coming years. What I saw on my Asia trip were some of the early attempts to make this happen in the alt-pork space. I had the chance to try various jackfruit alternatives in Singapore, including a jackfruit bao bun handed to me by Karana co-founder Blair Crichton during an event at Innovate 360. At another event across the city-state, we were served pork-like products from Wilmar Greenfarm Foods, including “Fish-Flavoured, Shredded Vegetarian Pork: Plant-based pork marinated with fermented chilli sauce made of chilli and bamboo shoot” and “Sweet and Sour Vegetarian Ribs with Truffle: Plant-based ribs slow-cooked with truffle and a caramelised sauce.”
A four-hour flight away in Hong Kong, at the Brinc Accelerator, there was also mention of advances in lab-grown, cultivated pork — and intriguingly, a mention that mainland China is holding closed-door meetings on the coordinated development and rollout of these technologies. So it seems this outbreak is serving as a catalyst for two main things: better tech for better biosecurity and animal welfare on pig farms, and preparations across Asia for the rise of alt-pork. Given the pressing need for both to happen — and fast — this whole area will be an innovation space to watch in Asia and beyond.