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China and African Swine Fever
Containing the Other Pandemic
Author’s Note: If you want to watch the video before starting on the script, you can watch it below
At the time of this video’s writing and publication, African Swine Fever was the only pandemic virus affecting people’s lives. I remember finishing up my research, publishing the video, and thinking to myself, “Gosh, good thing that it just affects pigs.”
A lot more has happened to the world since then than just African Swine Fever, but there are a few things I want to add to the video after the fact. First is the good news that a seemingly effective vaccine has been located for the fever. As it is based on a de-activated virus, an approach similar to that of the smallpox virus, it is likely to be pretty effective.
With that being said, simply having a vaccine does not mean the problem is solved. This isn’t Plague Inc. You got to scale up production of the swine vaccine while everyone else is trying to get their COVID vaccine lines up and running. Furthermore, wild hogs are a critical vector and you cannot go and vaccinate the wild hogs.
Reflecting on the video essay over a year after its release, there are a few things that stick out to me. When pandemics break out, certain social and job behaviors incentivize the spread of a virus. It is not that they have malicious intent or the like. They simply are going about their lives doing what they have always done.
If you want to enact certain restrictions to their behavior then the best way to make sure that they follow the enactments, you got to financially incentivize them to do so. You got to pay people to stay in. You got to pay pig farmers to stop using swill. Telling them they are bad people. Well, my mother always told me that calling the other kids names never got you anywhere.
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In 2018, reports of African Swine fever first started coming out of China. The disease is harmless in humans but 100% lethal for any poor porker who catches it. There is no vaccine or treatment. Its spread throughout China has been rapid, and demonstrates how the foundational functions of China’s government have yet to catch up to the developed world’s.
A History of African Swine Fever
Genetic studies of the African Swine Fever virus find that it evolved about 300 years ago somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. It came from a family of viruses that infects wild pigs like warthogs.
In a warthog, the virus does nothing and if it had just stayed in those warthogs in the middle of Africa then it would continue to do nothing. But then rinderpest annihilated the Kenyan cattle industry at the end of the 1800s — quite literally clearing the ground for a rising pig industry. Farmers seeing the opportunity imported pigs from abroad and began letting them loose around the Kenyan forests. There they met the hogs. Hot hog happenstances hoarded about, and the result was the virus crossing over to the unprotected pigs.
The first outbreak started in 1921. It slowly spread through Africa for 35 years until it popped up in Europe for the first time in 1957. From there it spread throughout Europe — forcing governments there to slaughter their pigs wholesale. It would take 30 years for the Portuguese to eradicate the disease.
By then though the disease had spread throughout Europe on the backs of European wild boar. Such infected wild boar from the country of Georgia entered Chechnya some time in 2007. It slowly spread across Russia for years.
How the Virus Spreads
Like Ebolavirus and HIV, swine fever does not spread through the air. Experiences with the Russian outbreak give some tips about how the disease spreads. In a UN report, the number one identified (a large portion of outbreaks have no identified cause) source of first infection is through the use of contaminated swill. Swill is a liquified slurry that farmers commonly use to feed their pigs. This swill can very easily get contaminated as the virus can survive for a long time on surfaces or objects. Farmers also often put pig products into their swill, making it easy for one infected pig to infect others. Once the fever enters the population, it spreads by hitching rides on people and vehicles.
Eradicating an outbreak is a laborious and expensive process, part of the reason why Russia did not do it over the span of ten years and why it took Portugal thirty to wipe it out for good. It requires a coordinated campaign based on educating farmers, demanding adherence to regulations, and detailed records of where animals are in the system. None of these Russia had. Despite 600,000 pig fatalities, and $1 billion lost, the disease continued to spread.
Swine Fever Comes to China
Russia never managed to deal with its swine fever problem but it did not really need to. Ultimately, Russia imports much of its pork needs and the pigs are generally concentrated in a few small areas. Thus it took over 10 years for swine flu to march across Russia into China.
But Pork in China is a whole different matter than pork in Russia. The average Chinese eats 4-5x more pork than the average American and over twice as much as the average European. It is a basic staple of their diet. The Chinese slaughter 600 million hogs a year, one hog for every 2.2 people.
Most of those pigs are born and raised within China itself. China strives for self-sufficiency in food supplies and that especially applies to meat production. There are a few imports from places like Brazil and the United States, but about 99% of Chinese pork consumption is from the domestic industry.
Despite all the pigs in China, it caught almost everyone by surprise to find that it took the fever just six months to cross the Yangtze River. It probably should not have though. The reasons the fever has spread so rapidly have to do with financial incentives, a lack of coordination, information control and good intentions gone bad.
An excerpt from the business-minded Caixin magazine reported:
But Caixin’s visits to towns and villages along the Xijiang River in May told a different story. One Wuzhou farmer described how in early April his pigs developed high fevers, refused to eat, and ultimately stopped moving. Within days they were nearly all dead. In two decades raising pigs he had never seen anything like it … other pig farmers in the village said their animals had displayed the same symptoms.
In December 2018, the national agricultural department assumed full control of all matters relating to swine fever. Only the government can declare a diagnosis of swine fever. It needs to go through the official channels.
One hand you see the logic. They want to control the flow of misinformation and fake news. No swine fever unless it is officially declared. But policies like this have consequences.
An official diagnosis allows the farmer to get paid back in cash for his dead pig crop. But diagnosis takes a long time and there is a huge backlog. For the farmer whose pigs are showing signs of infection, there is a terrible choice. They have about two weeks before the pigs are dead. A dead pig cannot be sold for food — they are buried or dumped for a total loss. Do you wait it out and risk potentially losing everything? Even if the farmer’s pigs are totally healthy right now, they could get sick at any moment. What do you do?
Pig farmers in locales without official outbreaks got super nervous because they could not easily find information about it in their area. Such information came out too slowly. It was accurate, but slow. And in the government’s eyes without official confirmation, swine fever there simply did not exist. Saying otherwise is to spread rumors and will get you arrested.
The flaw in this argument is that the virus does not really care what the government says. And the lack of information is information itself. Farmers saw what they saw, and reacted accordingly without the need of rumors or fake news.
What they did then was to sell their pigs early to the processing plants. Fast as they can. No matter the price. No matter whether the pig has symptoms or not. They hit the slaughterhouses and get infected there. Their products get used in swill. Their viruses get on cars and humans and processed pork products … and the cycle of infection continues.
No Money For Enforcement
The national government requires the local government to shoulder the major burden of paying the pig farmers for their infected pigs. Let us do some math as to how this backfired.
The official government subsidy set by the national Chinese government in September 2018 is about $175 per pig. There are 4.4 million live pigs in the city of Zhaoqing alone. Let us say some 30% of those pigs get sick, go through official channels, and then get eligible for the subsidy. That’s $230 million needed to pay back pig farmers for their dead pigs. We do not know the percentage the central government helps out on but for this exercise let us say it is half. For a city with a population of 4 million, that is $29 per person for dead pigs alone.
It is hard to believe that the local government can afford that level of financial burden. Even rich cities like Shanghai are probably not able to afford this, let alone agriculture cities like Zhaoqing. So the local officials there are economically incentivized to minimize the outbreaks. In one way that is good — it means that they should try to keep infected pigs out of their cities. But if the pigs are already infected, then there is an incentive to sweep the whole thing under the rug. This combined with the ban on fake news means the disease spread and probably continues to spread right now.
Portugal took 30 years to rid itself of the Fever. And it is a country with the wealth and resources and openness to do it. China is going to be dealing with this for a long time. It is going to cost billions of dollars. And China's first response to this has failed. They need to go back to square one.
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