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ASF warnings after virus DNA detected in UK

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By Josh Loeb

African swine fever (ASF) virus DNA has been detected in samples of illegally imported pork products seized at an entry point into Northern Ireland – the first time the virus has been detected in the UK.

Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) made the announcement last week, warning those travelling abroad to ensure that they do not bring animal or plant products back into the UK.

In June alone, 300 kg of illegal meat and dairy products were detected in passengers’ luggage in Northern Ireland.

DAERA stressed that the discovery of ASF ‘DNA fragments’ in products seized at airports and tested at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) posed no significant threat to Northern Ireland’s animal health status.

However, the department added that there was ‘currently a specific concern over the spread of ASF, which is largely attributed to pigs consuming contaminated pork or pork products’.

It said the risk to Northern Ireland has ‘steadily increased’ due to the recent spread of ASF in Belgium, other European countries and south-east Asia, including China.

ASF poses no health risk to people but in pigs is highly contagious and usually fatal.

DAERA did not respond to a request from Vet Record to identify the countries of origin of the seized products that tested positive, saying only that the products were ‘of Asian origin’.

Northern Ireland’s chief vet Robert Huey said: ‘Illegal products will be seized and destroyed. Furthermore anyone detected in possession of prohibited items risks prosecution and a fine.’

The BVA applauded the ‘swift action’ in Northern Ireland.

But the association’s president, Simon Doherty, emphasised the need to remain incredibly vigilant.

He said ASF ‘poses a significant and growing threat to animal welfare and agriculture throughout all regions of the UK, so we need to continue to make every effort to curb its spread and raise public awareness of the risks of bringing animal products that may be carrying the disease into the country’.

Pig Veterinary Society (PVS) vice president Paul Thompson told Vet Record: ‘ASF is a devastating disease of pigs. The virus survives for considerable periods in meat products and can be spread into the domestic or wild pig population by exposure to waste or discarded products. One sandwich could be all that it takes to start an outbreak.

‘The announcement by Northern Irish authorities that they seized 300 kg of illegal meat and dairy products in June alone illustrates the ongoing severity of the threat. This is further amplified by the finding that a sample tested positive for ASF at AFBI on a PCR test.

This clearly demonstrates the potential for disease to enter the UK via this route

‘This does not change the UK ASF disease-free status and does not necessarily mean the meat was infectious, but it clearly demonstrates the potential for disease to enter the UK via this route.’

He said the PVS, along with farming organisations, is pressing for additional signage and controls at points of entry to the UK.

‘The seizures of meat reported are likely to be only a proportion of the illegal imports currently discovered.

‘PVS would also like to remind vets to ensure all clients with pigs, including pet pigs and smallholder farms, are fully aware of the risks of feeding any waste to pigs, reminding them that this is also illegal, and to encourage producers to put up clear signage on any area of public access close to pigs.’

Some UK pig farmers have previously suggested that the gravity of the threat would justify putting in place an all-out ban on pig products entering the UK from ASF-affected countries – including those in the EU (VR, 22 June 2019, vol 184, pp 749–751). However, EU rules on trade prohibit this.

Often described as the biggest global livestock disease outbreak ever, ASF is now officially present in 50 countries, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). The true extent of the disease is thought to be wider still.

• See next week’s Vet Record for a special report highlighting concerns that theOIE’s systems for chronicling the spread of ASF in Europe are not robust enough•

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