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OIE member accused of ‘hiding ASF outbreaks’

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By Josh Loeb

Experts in African swine fever (ASF) have expressed frustration at the system for monitoring the disease’s spread.

Several vets and related professionals from across the world have suggested that efforts to combat ASF are being hampered because of a lack of sufficiently rigorous mechanisms to ensure transparent reporting of outbreaks.

A case in point is Belarus, an eastern European, ex-Soviet country bordering the EU.

It is suspected of knowingly concealing outbreaks of ASF – in defiance of its obligations as a member of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

Map showing European countries affected by African swine fever (ASF) in red and those not affected in grey, as per the World Organisation for Animal Health’s data. Belarus is the grey country in eastern Europe surrounded by red (data correct as of start of July 2019. Not all the countries in red have active ASF events as of today, but all have reported at least one since the start of 2018)

Belarus stopped sending ASF outbreak notifications to the OIE in 2013, despite there having been outbreaks in the country at that time. Ever since, the Belarussian authorities have denied that their country is affected.

However, last month there was an ASF outbreak at a Polish pig farm six miles from the border with Belarus, and last year Russian veterinary authorities said they had detected ASF viral DNA in pig meat from Belarus.

Nic Bartlett of the African Swine Fever Organization, an international collaboration between pig vets, pork producers and other stakeholders, called Belarus a ‘bad actor’ in the fight against ASF.

He said the OIE lacked the tools by which to force compliance, meaning options for confronting the country about the problem were limited.

We would like to see more aggressive actions taken by OIE against Belarus

‘We would like to see more aggressive actions taken by the OIE against Belarus,’ he added.

Vet Paul Sundberg, executive director of the Swine Health Information Center in the USA, agreed the OIE had no enforcement processes by which to force member countries to comply with rules.

‘Of course we are concerned,’ he said. ‘This issue is one reason why the United States Department of Agriculture does not blindly accept the OIE status...for certain diseases.’

However, he said that, while not having the power of enforcement could be ‘frustrating’, handing the OIE such a power would place limits on sovereign nations’ rights.

Nancy De Briyne from the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe said that, while she could not comment specifically about Belarus, ‘one of the most important conditions to control and stop the spread of transmissible diseases is to ensure transparency – if countries ignore this responsibility they put many other countries at risk.’

ASF can devastate pig herds but is not zoonotic. No vaccine has yet been developed for the virus, and the disease is now so widespread that veterinary epidemiologist Dirk Pfeiffer has suggested it constitutes the biggest global animal disease event in human history.

Despite its refusal to cooperate with the OIE, Belarus is conspicuous in its absence from the official list kept by the OIE of countries currently affected by ASF. Belarus retains its OIE membership, however, along with full voting rights and other benefits.

The OIE was established in the 1920s as the Office International des Epizooties (it retains the original acronym despite having changed its name in 2003) and is in charge of setting worldwide animal health standards.

Its spokesperson said that all countries that are members of the OIE are under a ‘legal obligation’ to send official notifications of animal diseases through its World Animal Health Information System (WAHIS).

Asked why Belarus was not on the OIE’s list of ASF-affected countries, the spokesperson said: ‘Belarus has not reported any incurrence of African swine fever through the OIE WAHIS system since 2013.’

Asked what court Belarus could be brought before if suspected of non-compliance in this regard, they replied that the OIE ‘does not have a mandate for compliance and enforcement’.

If a ‘lack of transparency’ is observed by a member country, the OIE will ‘not take legal measures’, they said. Instead, ‘communication channels’ are established to try to address the issue.

Asked about suspicions regarding non-compliance by Belarus, the OIE suggested that it always verified whether a rumour was true by seeking confirmation from the country that was the subject of the accusation – in other words, by asking the governmental authorities in that country.

This has prompted some sarcasm among sceptics. Pig farmer and scientist Shane McAuliffe remarked: ‘If [Alexander] Lukashenko [the president of Belarus] says there is no ASF in Belarus, then he is telling the truth, of course.’

Paul Thompson, vice president of the Pig Veterinary Society, said: ‘It is of concern to the Pig Veterinary Society if Belarus is not honouring its commitments to report outbreaks of ASF to the OIE.

‘ASF is a devastating disease of pigs which has severe impacts on pig welfare. Diseases such as ASF do not respect borders, and efficient control can only take place if countries cooperate openly on disease status and control measures.’

Earlier this month it was announced that ASF virus DNA had been detected in samples of illegally imported pork products seized at entry points into Northern Ireland – the first time the virus has been detected in the UK. The meat was of Asian origin.

As of the start of this month, European countries on the OIE’s list of those officially affected by ASF included Belgium, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Russia and the Baltic states.

As if by magic, Belarus has remained unaffected by ASF while all the countries around it have succumbed

‘There is a big hole on the map of countries affected by ASF where Belarus is,’ remarked one pig vet. ‘As if by magic, Belarus has remained unaffected by it while all the countries around it have succumbed.’

Vet Record contacted the Belorussian embassy in London to ask about the allegations regarding ASF and its relations with the OIE, but the embassy did not respond. •

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