PODCAST: How to prepare for, prevent ASF in the US

PODCAST: How to prepare for, prevent ASF in the US

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Marty Vanier, director of the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center at Kansas State University, explains what would happen in the event of an animal disease emergency


PODCAST: How to prepare for, prevent ASF in the US (29:53)

Ann Reus: Hello and welcome to the Feed Strategy podcast. I’m your host, Ann Reus.

African swine fever has gotten closer to the U.S. in recent months, with the confirmation of the disease in pigs in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. This is the first time in more than 40 years that the virus has been detected in the Western Hemisphere.

So, with all of this in mind, I thought it would be a good time to speak with an expert here in the U.S. about what would happen if and when African swine fever ever made its way into this country and what swine producers and feed manufacturers should know ahead of time.

I recently spoke with Marty Vanier. She is director of the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center (NABC) at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. She explained what would happen in the event of an animal disease emergency, and she also talked about important steps livestock and feed producers should be taking now to prevent and prepare for a disease outbreak, as well as other emergencies.

This is our conversation.

If African swine fever were ever suspected or confirmed in the U.S., can you walk me through, step by step, what happens in the first hours and days of an animal disease emergency?

Marty Vanier: Obviously, there would be some event involving swine in which the producer and/or the producer’s veterinarian were to suspect a significant disease, whether it’s African swine fever, or any number of other significant diseases. Generally, then the veterinarian, if they are suspecting African swine fever, will call in either a state veterinarian or a federal veterinarian, both of whom are qualified to examine animals and take samples, whatever samples are appropriate, to send to a laboratory for confirmation of the disease. So, there’s going to be a little bit of a time lag, obviously. Generally, these folks who have had foreign animal disease training are really good at knowing what they’re looking at. So, if they suspect that it’s going to be African swine fever, even as they are taking the sample and getting it packaged to go to the laboratory, they will likely at that point, place a quarantine on the premise. So this could be either a very large confinement swine operation, it could be a backyard farm, it could be whatever. But at that point, they can put a quarantine on that premise as the sample goes to the laboratory for testing.

Various state veterinary diagnostic labs have the capability to test for African swine fever. But the gold standard confirmation will have to come from the USDA laboratory. So, generally, these veterinarians will split the sample, send one to the local veterinary diagnostic laboratory and send one to the federal laboratory. Once they’ve placed the quarantine on the premise then, of course, they alert state animal health officials and the federal officials at USDA APHIS, to let them know that they have a suspect, let them know that they’ve placed a quarantine on the premise. At that point, both the state agency state department of agriculture or state animal health office and the federal office begin talking to each other to coordinate who’s going to go to the site, what further testing needs to be done, what sort of communications, public communications they need to put out, whether it’s going to be just more of a local press release or whether it’s going to be a national notification, and begin the process of containing the disease, trying to identify where it is, and then eliminating the disease.

So, each of these are a separate step. So, our first step is that animal is examined, samples are taken, samples are going to the lab. Step two is quarantine of the premise. At that point, then, the veterinarian on-site will begin to do tracing, will ask the owner about animal movement. Have any new animals come in recently? Have any animals left the facility recently? They will ask about biosecurity measures on the farm. They will ask, particularly, about feed sources for the animals and we’ll talk about that a little later why that’s particularly important. But they need to get a sense of movement on and off the farm. The reason for this is that the period of time, the incubation period for this disease, can be up to two weeks. So, any animal that may have moved onto or out of the farm in, say, the last two to three weeks, is a potential, either source of the infection, or has the potential to spread the infection off of the initial premise. So that’s why they start talking about contact tracing.

At this point, beyond the quarantine area, the farm itself, there will be a little buffer zone set up and then an area outside of the buffer zone where they begin to look at other potential premises. In other words, are there other swine farms nearby that we need to go check. So, all of these things happen in very rapid succession.

There will be at least a local if not a national stop movement, which means that there will be no transportation of swine on or off of their the current premise where they’re standing. And this stop movement will be a minimum of 72 hours. The reason for that is that, as this system is energized, to look for potential other infections of ASF on other farms. You don’t want to try to do that in the face of bunches of animals moving around; you want everybody to stop and stand still so you can figure out how widespread this disease might be. And once you know that, then you begin to understand what the rest of your response activities are going to look like.

Reus: So, after outlining those scenarios, are you able to explain what the best- and worst-case scenarios could be?

Vanier: So, in the perfect world, we would have the disease localized to one premise, one farm, and we can then quarantine that farm, and all of those animals on that farm would be depopulated. At this point, that is basically our only option with respect to stamping out African swine fever. So, you’ve quarantined the facility, and by quarantine, we’re talking a very strict quarantine. The people who are on the facility stay on the facility, unless there is an appropriate method to decontaminate the people. And, otherwise, they stay on the facility. No one comes on to the facility that shouldn’t be there. You will have, obviously, animal health regulatory folks who are there who will come in to, if there are other samples that need to be taken, they will come in and do that, they will come in and do the euthanasia of the swine on the farm. So, you limit the number of people moving back and forth. And those people who do move back and forth are decontaminated. They will likely be in personal protective equipment. So, Tyvek, suits, masks, gloves, boots, the whole nine yards. And all of that gets decontaminated. And these folks will essentially have to strip down and put on clean sets of clothing before they can leave the premise. So it’s pretty strict in that respect. And in the perfect world, it’s only that farm and we get a quarantine quickly, no animals move, all of the animals are euthanized, and you go through the appropriate farm decontamination procedures and a stand down. There will no doubt, once the premises decontaminated, there will be a stand down for likely two to three incubation periods, which means probably two to three months, before you bring new swine into the farm because you want to be sure that you have eradicated all of the virus that would be on any surface on the farm. So that’s the perfect world. But even at that we’re talking, you know, two or three months before you can stand up and go back to business.

In an imperfect and sloppy world, we will likely have an infection pop up in more than one location. And that could happen for a variety of reasons. It could be because we have some sort of mechanical object or human being who happens to have the virus on them, on the object, on the person’s clothes, or boots or truck or whatever, moving from farm to farm to farm. And so they are in contact with swine at each premise and they are spreading the infection. This would potentially include feed trucks and feed ingredients. Another bad scenario would be you’ve got someone who is either bringing swine in, some of whom are infected, who then by close contact infect the rest of the swine. And then, oh, by the way, they’re shipping some out to other locations. And so now those pigs that have been infected on the first premise, are now moving out to other premises and infecting other swine. So that would be the imperfect world. And in that world, if people, if producers don’t honor the stand down or don’t honor quarantine procedures, then those activities end up spreading the disease faster than we can get our arms around it, faster than we can stamp it out.

The third scenario that frightens everyone is that somewhere in all of the sloppiness of fomites or swine moving around, that somehow you end up exposing feral swine. And at that point, it becomes extraordinarily difficult because we know that the disease can see it in feral swine, they can become a reservoir, and each time they potentially come in contact with domestic swine across a fence, say, a backyard herd, then now you just keep that infection rolling, and keep it going and you never know where it’s going to pop up next, and you can never get ahead of it.

So, we have the best scenario, we have a medium bad scenario, and we have a real bad scenario.

Reus: Yeah, and the best scenario, even then, sounds pretty devastating for a producer, that stand down period for months.

Vanier: Yes.

Reus: But the medium bad and the real bad, are really devastating. I mean, that’s anxiety inducing.

Vanier: Yes, it is.

Reus: What dangers do you think wild boar pose to the domestic pig herd, and what do you think should be done to minimize those risks?

Vanier: This is a really thorny issue, even setting African swine fever aside. Feral swine do a lot of damage in the locations where they are, they do a lot of damage to the land, they do a lot of damage to facilities, they’re just generally not helpful to the environment. But, you add in African swine fever, and becomes even worse, because now they are walking around, you know, spewing virus out. The reason that they’re feral is that they’re very good at hiding from us. They are very wild. That’s also their attraction to those folks who like to hunt feral swine. And that’s a thing. There are people for whom that is great sport. And so, trying to satisfy both sides, the folks who are trying to raise swine and protect the food supply, and have healthy animals go to harvest can sometimes be in conflict with sportsmen who find it great fun to hunt feral swine. So how do you satisfy those two? Feral swine tend to not respect fences. So, you know, one simple answer is we just fence them. Well, they don’t respect fences. So that is a solution that does not have a high likelihood of succeeding. This can be very difficult. Once again, in the perfect world, the way that we eliminate, at this point in time, the way that we eliminate African swine fever is to eliminate all the animals that carry it, but with feral swine that’s extraordinarily difficult to do.

Reus: Right, they reproduce fast and have, you know, multiple litters in a year. And then as we’re seeing in Europe and Asia in some cities, they’re just getting to be so used to people that they’re just wandering around freely without even shying away from people on the streets.

Vanier: Yes.

Reus: And rooting through garbage which, just, as you and I know, is a really bad situation.

Vanier: It’s a really bad situation, and you bring up garbage and, you know, certainly, not so much in the U.S., but certainly in other parts of the world, feeding garbage to swine is the major form of nutrition for those swine. And swine are omnivores, they’ll eat anything. And so, if you have a food material, whether it is a plant-based material or whether it is an animal-based material, the virus survives very well. And that is often how African swine fever is spread in other parts of the world is by the feeding of raw garbage, much of which is carrying the virus

Reus: How prepared are the U.S. swine and feed industries for an animal disease of the magnitude that ASF has the potential to be?

Vanier: I’m not sure I can give you a good answer to that question because, in some respects, I’m not close enough to that, to the particular industry to be able to assess that. What I can say is that we work very hard to try to help the industry, whether it is the swine production industry or the feed industry, to understand and analyze what they identify as their risks, and help them think about ways to be prepared, either with in-place biosecurity programs that will anticipate risks, and mitigate those risks, or having plans in place such that, when an emergency hits and disaster strikes, they have a plan to be able to operate in the face of that emergency. Part of me says you can never be too prepared, but I think it’s sometimes really hard, because we haven’t had ASF in this country, and have certainly not had it anywhere near our country in almost 50 years, that ASF, or planning for any other animal disease emergency has maybe not been top of mind. It is something that takes a lot of work and a lot of thinking. We try to do that here at NABC so that maybe we can create some tools that can help the industry think through this process and not have to reinvent the wheel every time.

The other thing that I would suggest is there’s a lot of information out there that folks can use. If producers are interested in understanding what the USDA response will be, you can go to aphis.usda.gov and search for the what’s called The Red Book. The Red Book, and there are several red books, are manuals that talk about how USDA would view the response to an animal disease emergency, whether it’s ASF, classical swine fever, foot-and-mouth disease, whatever. So, there are guides that they have written already that suggests what the federal response will be.

Now, the caveat in all of this is that each state has its own separate response plan. And each state is a little bit different. One of the things that we’re trying to do is talk with states on a regional basis, and see if we can find ways for them to collaborate and coordinate their plans. Because one of the things that we want to do is we want to help the industry get back on its feet as quickly as possible. So, continuity of business is really important. And, as you think about working through a situation where you’re coming out of that national standstill, you still need to get swine to market, you still need to get swine to harvest. How do you do that?

One of the other things that I would suggest is for producers to take a look at secure food supply plans, because those are plans that that ask the producers to be very proactive in thinking about biosecurity on their facilities. It also is a way that states can use these plans and work with producers that have implemented secure food supply plans, and use those as a method of providing for continuity of business. So, for instance, one of the things that we’re doing in Kansas is that the state of Kansas has made it clear that, for producers in the state who have an approved secure food supply plan, they will be the first producers that will be allowed to go to market during an emergency.

Reus: Yeah, that sounds huge, like a huge advantage, after hearing you say how horrible it could be.

Vanier: And so one of the things that I did want to talk about particularly, you know, as you’re working with the feed industry and the swine industry, that I think the swine folks are probably pretty good understanding what the damage may be to their individual premises, I think they are going to understand that. But what the feed industry maybe doesn’t understand is that you’ve got a premise that’s under quarantine, which means that the premise and the feed mill have to understand how you’re going to get food to those swine before they’re euthanized. If the farm doesn’t have enough feed stockpiled, then how do they get feed there to feed those animals until they’re euthanized? Or, for a facility that’s outside of the quarantine, but still, for instance, within a surveillance zone or a control zone where traffic is going to be limited, how do you bring that feed product in to those swine? Or if the feed mill happens to be in a control zone, how do they service their customers that are outside of the control zone? So there are going to have to be some procedures in place, business will not operate as normal. And there will be some procedures in place that they’re going to have to abide by, even though they potentially are not involved with the infected premise.

So, this is why it’s really important that the feed industry understand these plans are going to look like. And this is why they need to communicate with their producers, whether it’s a swine producer, cattle producers, whatever, they need to communicate with those folks and understand what biosecurity activities are taking place on their customers’ premises, they need to understand what’s happening, both with a state response plan and the federal response plans, so that they know what’s coming, because they will in fact, be impacted by these too, even if they’re not directly involved.

Reus: Are there any weak spots in the U.S. animal disease preparedness that you think need more attention?

Vanier: As I said earlier, you can’t be too prepared, so having some sort of a response plan – having a plan, even if you don’t activate the plan, maybe you run a drill. Even if you don’t activate the plan, think about what is going on around the country or around the world and think about what you would do if it happened to you and how would you react to that.

And now I’m going to talk about just a generalized emergency plan for a facility. So, for instance, a huge disease risk is one kind of an emergency that you plan for. But facilities need to also look at things like what happens if the power goes out. How do you operate without power? And these are things that people don’t think about much. So how would you operate without power? How would you operate if you didn’t have water? How would you operate if transportation was shut down, say, an important bridge went out near your premise? And so traffic can’t cross that bridge to get to your farm. How does that impact your employees? How does that impact getting animals in and out? How does that impact getting feed to your animals?

All of those things have an impact on your business. And these are all things you need to think about. And you need to think about how you’re going to react and who’s going to do what, what responsibilities do certain of your employees have. So, for instance, if the power goes out, do you have backup generators? OK, who’s checking the backup generators to be sure that they have fuel? That’s something that we have discovered, particularly over the last winter, when there were ice storms. No one thought much about it, particularly in South Texas. No one thought much about it. They didn’t winterize their equipment. And now, here comes this storm that knocks everything out.

So, it’s thinking about things like that and thinking about what you would do. And you need to just kind of review those things because new employees come and go, and so you might need to shift some of those responsibilities around. By thinking about those things, you don’t have to try to figure it out on the fly, which is never successful.

So, to address your question, what do I think needs more attention? I think certainly the idea of thinking about different kinds of emergencies and planning for what you’re going to do during that emergency is probably the most important thing.

Reus: Now, you’ve spoken a lot about preparedness and response. But what kind of preventive measures should feed mills and livestock farms be taking now to keep the U.S. free from ASF and other diseases?

Vanier: Well, a lot of that is, I would consider preparedness. So, certainly, good biosecurity with respect to a production facility, a livestock production facility, good biosecurity. You bring animals onto your premise, lots of places quarantine those animals for some period of time to make sure that they’re free of disease before they put them in a larger group.

Feed mills can do the same thing. Is the feed mill aware of their suppliers, and are they aware of source materials? Have the source materials being tested for whatever, whether it’s a virus, whether it’s any other kind of contaminant, whether it’s, a grain supply that might be contaminated with some crop disease. How sure are they have the safety of their inputs? Physical security is really important. Do they have fences or barriers that prevent people from just walking into the facility, unaccompanied, and without anyone on the facility knowing that these folks are there. So, physical security is important. Having appropriate biosecurity controls, whether it’s for a feed product, and I know from a little bit of experience with the feed production industry, that there are all kinds of rules and regulations with respect to formulating feeds, and nutrient products that get mixed into those feeds, whether it’s vitamin and mineral supplements, whether it is a medicated feed, whatever, there are all kinds of rules and regulations that are there for the purpose of making sure that these products are well controlled and are uncontaminated and are used for the purpose for which they’re produced.

On a livestock production facility, you do the same sort of thing. You are making sure that you know the source of animals that you’re bringing in, you want to know the health status of those animals that you’re bringing in, you want to observe them to be sure that they don’t break with some disease due to stress or shipment. You want to know who’s on your property at all times doing what things. Do you have method for receiving visitors? Most well-run swine facilities don’t let folks just walk onto the property and visit the various houses. There are security protocols that they have to go through, whether it’s a foot bath, or full PPE, or whatever. All of those things are there to protect the animals and to protect the health of those animals. So, those are the things that need to continue to happen.

We’re hoping at some point to have an ASF vaccine. There are several products that are in the pipeline that are currently being tested and hopefully some of those will successfully complete the regulatory process and be used so that we can then vaccinate. That will be huge to be able to vaccinate for African swine fever because then, at that point, we greatly reduce the risk of an out-of-control disease emergency, but we don’t have that yet. So at this point, folks have to be very, very diligent about the inputs to their process and to their facility. They have to be very diligent about watching the health of their animals. They have to be very diligent about understanding who’s coming on to their facility and for what purpose.

Reus: Thank you, Marty. This is all really great information.

To learn more about African swine fever and view our coverage of outbreaks around the world, go to FeedStrategy.com. Thanks for listening.