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Can tech save our bacon as ASF spreads?

September 30, 2019

Lots has happened since our last feature on African Swine Fever (ASF) when the virus was sending the world’s top pork producer China spiraling. It still is, and the country has now started digging into its pork reserves. ASF has also reared its head in the Philippines and South Korea.

Earlier in September 2019, the Filipino Department of Agriculture confirmed the virus was slowly spreading across the Southeast Asian nation, forcing local governments to cull over 15,000 pigs. Although Manila is giving out ₱3,000 ($58) for every culled pig, farmers told China’s Xinhua news agency they haven’t received the money yet.

South Korea broke news of an outbreak on September 17, and has since confirmed nine cases of the fatal disease. Its agriculture ministry said the country remains highly vigilant over additional outbreaks and is stepping up disinfection efforts. Ninety-thousand pigs are due to be culled across the country as authorities investigate the origin of the deadly virus.

Check out my earlier coverage of declining pork supplies globally due to ASF, here.

Snapshot: African Swine Fever’s Spread

  • Early September: reached The Philippines, leading to the culling of 15,000 pigs
  • September 17: South Korea confirms outbreak, 90,000 pigs to be culled
  • September 29: Hungary discovers the virus in wild boar near capital Budapest
  • Virus not in Australia, but officials determined to keep “gold standard” pest-, disease-free status

Although it’s seas apart, Australian biosecurity officials are on full alert, as the fever sweeps through the rest of Asia. Federal agriculture minister Bridget McKenzie said Australia is doing “everything we can to ensure African swine fever does not reach our shores.” She added her country is determined to keep its “gold standard” pest- and disease-free status as an exporter.

“It would decimate our 2,700 pork producers and the 34,000 jobs that go along with that industry,” she added, in an interview with 9News. She said ASF, if not controlled, would have repercussions for global trade for decades.

Elsewhere, the virus is continuing its spread into Eastern Europe. Hungary’s national food safety authority found five cases of African swine fever in wild boar carcasses near Budapest on September 30. Investigation are underway. There are now 10 EU countries affected, with ‘bad’ outbreaks in Bulgaria and its neighbor Romania. Slovakia was affected by the disease in four backyard farms as of July.

Bring on the tech

Early detection is the first step in maiming the spread of the fever to entire flocks of pigs. If an infection could be isolated to a few pens and found early, it would help slash losses to the herd. Boehringer Ingelheim (BI) has developed an ASF diagnostic test kit to support farmers and diagnostic laboratories. It includes educational tools, such as an app, that assess a farm’s biosecurity. It’s also is available in a variety of European languages and Chinese.

Diagnostics also play an important role for early detection of disease,” says Tereza Urbankova, BI spokesperson, speaking exclusively with AFN. “We are proactively looking into technology to allow our customers to more accurately monitor animal health and wellbeing, analyze data insights, detect and predict issues much sooner, and intervene with tailored solutions to better prevent and precisely treat diseases.”

“The ultimate solution is, of course, an ASF vaccine…”

However, although BI has come up with an effective diagnostic tool, Urbankova tells us that finding a cure is still of utmost importance. The German pharma giant has been working for several years on a potential vaccine but says the virus poses unique challenges, and its researchers have yet to make any ‘breakthroughs’. On September 22, BI announced it invested over €200 million ($217 million) in developing one of the largest biotechnology production sites for veterinary vaccines in Europe in Lyon. The move puts it in good standing to tear apart the ASF conundrum.

AFN is keeping close tabs on Boehringer Ingelheim and will have updates on them as they come. 

Hearing the virus

BI’s Urbankova gave us some leads about other tech that could help out in early diagnostics; the one that stood out for us was SoundTalks. It’s a digital monitoring tool that veterinarians and pork producers place in barns that runs in the background using algorithms to monitor respiratory distress. It can detect even the slightest alterations in pig sounds, such as changes in coughing patterns. Once it does, the app alerts users of potential health issues in the herd, much earlier than traditional methods. BI acquired a minority stake in SoundTalks in April 2019.

“This technology is running 24/7. It detects the onset of respiratory distress episodes as early as possible,” said Dale Polson, technical manager for BI’s integrated health systems, diagnostic and monitoring strategic business unit. “We’ve seen data from Europe and from other placements in the US where we can detect the onset of cough episodes caused by various disease before the workers in barns notice them.”

“Technology plays an increasingly important role in the livestock industry,” adds Urbankova. With earlier detection, comes earlier, more targeted treatment. This can result in faster response and recovery, improved performance and reduced economic loss at individual sites. Although BI calls SoundTalks ‘unrelated’ to ASF, it could find a purpose in detecting the virus, as it does monitor the health of pig herds. (Maybe ASF-infected pigs snort differently?)

Bovine tech, for their porky brethren?

Much like SoundTalks, Uruguay’s Chipsafer relies on IoT but this time to monitor cattle, using tags to measure vital signs and reduce cattle theft. The startup uses sensors to relay data from livestock, including body temperature, local humidity and geolocation.

“The use of technology is super important to prevent an epidemic. In the case of cattle, there are many diseases that can be detected by changes in the movement of the animals,” says the startup’s founder Victoria Alonsoperez, speaking exclusively to AFN. Her startup recently put its technology to the test in pilot programs in Namibia and Kenya. “At Chipsafer, we developed a platform that can geolocate and detect anomalies in the behavior of individual animals, warning farmers on time so that they can take fast action.”

But could its tech, developed for cows, be applied to pigs?

“Once an outbreak is detected, a plan should be put in place to prevent expansion”

As its name suggests, pigs infected with ASF exhibit flu-like symptoms such as fever of over 41°c , according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). That’s a temperature change that Chipsafer can definitely detect. Although Alonsoperez did not elaborate on the possibility of developing her tech for swine usage, she flags how her tech could curb infestations of diseases and plagues for cattle.

“Once an outbreak is detected, a plan should be put in place to prevent expansion. For example, all the neighboring farmers should be warned, and affected areas should be isolated. By detecting where the outbreak started, researchers can investigate its cause and set measures to prevent it from happening in the future,” she adds.

Know of tech that can help in the fight against ASF? Drop me an email at [email protected].

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