Ebola-like swine disease appears in Germany, does not pose a threat to humans

Pigs raised on a farm in Elma, Iowa.

Pigs raised on a farm in Elma, Iowa.
Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

Health officials in Germany have reaffirmed that the virus that causes African swine fever is unlikely to endanger humans, even if they eat the meat of infected animals. However, the comfort comes in the wake of the recent discovery of the virus in several pig farms across the country, a troubling development as ASF is highly contagious and fatal in domestic pigs.

the African swine fever virus is named after the disease it causes. It is the only DNA virus known to spread by arthropods, in this case the bite of certain species of soft ticks (the genetic material of a virus can be either RNA or DNA) . The virus is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, where it does not appear to make its native tick hosts and various species of feral pigs seriously ill. But when ASF infects domestic pigs, it can cause severe Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever with a fatality rate of nearly 100%. Although ticks are normally the primary method of transmission, the virus can also survive for a long time in the meat and body fluids of infected pigs, including feces, allowing it to be spread quite easily through close contact on a farm. .

Since its discovery in the 1920s, ASF has periodically caused devastating effects (and sometimes mysterious) outbreaks of disease and death in domestic pigs where it has been introduced. The threat of African swine fever is so deep that countries will systematically slaughter entire populations of potentially exposed pigs and ban imports from affected countries to prevent further spread. But that hasn’t stopped the virus from eventually becoming endemic in parts of Russia and Europe. Since 2018, the biggest epidemic ASF to date has continued across Asia, killing millions of pigs and wreaking havoc on the global pork economy.

Germany’s recent discovery of ASF within its borders is therefore painful. German authorities confirmed ASF in wild boars last September, and on July 15 the country became the latest country to report local cases of ASF, found in pigs living on two farms. Just yesterday a third case was confirmed, on a small farm near the other two sites. Following the discovery of African swine fever last year, many countries have temporarily banned imports of German pork, which could limit the spread of African swine fever from the region.

ASF is a potentially serious problem whenever it is find, but there is at least a silver lining: there has never been a suspected case of human illness linked to the virus, although it may remain viable in the meat for months, and even after being stored, frozen or cooked.

“As the pathogen is not dangerous to humans, the consumption of food from infected animals does not pose a risk to the health of consumers”, German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. declared in his most recent ASF outbreak FAQ.

Still, there is room for dark pessimism if you look hard enough. ASF is the only known member of its viral family, called Asfarviridae. But last December, an international group of researchers claims to find DNA sequence evidence of one or more unknown viruses possibly related to ASF in blood samples taken from people in the Middle East as well as sewers in Spain.

“The detection of these sequences suggests that greater genetic diversity may exist among asfarviruses than previously thought and raises the possibility that human infection with asfarviruses may occur,” they wrote. Only a little food for thought.

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