BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) – Thailand, one of Asia's top pork producers, is stepping up efforts to contain a deadly swine virus that is wreaking havoc as it spreads throughout the region.
African swine fever – a disease that kills almost all the pigs it infects – is spreading through Asia, China and Mongolia to Vietnam and Cambodia. Millions of pigs were slaughtered, creating a global protein shortage and burdening farmers and food companies with billions of dollars worth of food.
"We are on a red alert for the pig virus," said Anan Suwannarat, permanent secretary of the Thai Ministry of Agriculture, in an interview.
"We are trying hard to prevent it from spreading to Thailand."
Thailand has strengthened inspections at airports and border checkpoints, repressed slaughterhouses and illegal traders, and imposed stricter reporting requirements for pig deaths. Authorities have detected contaminated pork products at airports and at borders, but have not yet found cases on farms.
China, the largest producer and consumer of pigs, has been trying to contain the outbreak since August. But without a vaccine, the virus continues to spread.
The strain of African swine fever spreading in Asia is undeniably unpleasant, killing virtually every pig infected by a hemorrhagic disease reminiscent of Ebola in humans. It is not known to make people sick, though.
Vietnam, the largest pork producer in Southeast Asia, discovered its first case in February. Cambodia, plunged between Vietnam and Thailand, recorded its first infection less than two months later.
"Preventing the outbreak is our national agenda," said Cheerasak Pipatpongsopon, deputy director general of the Livestock Department of Thailand.
"Even if it arrives in the country, we will be quick to contain the outbreak to minimize damage to the industry."
The Ministry of Agriculture has estimated that an outbreak could cost the Thai economy more than $ 1 billion ($ 1.38 billion) if more than 50 percent of the country's swine are infected. That could reach almost $ 2 billion if 80 percent are infected. The Thai government last month approved a $ 4.7 million budget to prepare the country for a possible outbreak.
"No country is safe," said Dirk Pfeiffer, a professor in the Department of Infectious Diseases and Public Health at Hong Kong City University.
"There is a high risk of introduction of the virus in Thailand, as is the case for all countries in the region and beyond."
Thailand produces more than 2 million pigs a year and exports about 40% to Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. It does not import live pork or pork, according to Cheerasak, and now visitors can not bring pork products processed to the country.
It has confiscated pork products at its airports and borders 550 times since August, detecting the virus 43 times, according to the Department of Livestock.
The Thai Swine Raisers Association said the government is struggling to keep the disease out. The group's chairman, Surachai Sutthitham, said he was "confident that Thailand could avoid the virus."
Porous borders increase the risk of disease entering the country. The virus can survive on raw meat for a long period of time, and the pigs can be infected if contaminated food enters their food. But food in Thailand is rare, Cheerasak said.
An outbreak in Southeast Asia's second largest economy may pose a risk to large food companies like Betagro Pcl and Charoen Pokphand Foods Pcl and threaten 180,000 small farmers. It would also create an immediate challenge for the government that would be formed shortly after the March general election.