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USDA Moves Swiftly to Mitigate ASF Outbreak in Dominican Republic

1 September 2021, at 12:30am

On July 28, 2021, the USDA’s foreign animal disease diagnostic laboratory confirmed a wild type African Swine Fever (ASF) in eight samples collected from hogs in the Dominican Republic.

From there, the entire organization moved in full swing, immediately notifying the Chief Veterinary Officer in the Dominican Republic, who notified the World Health Organization for Animal Health (OIE), and started the process of looking more closely into what we could do to protect both Dominican pork, but also prevent spread to the U.S.

Considering this is the first outbreak of ASF in the Americas in 40 years, USDA and other government agencies are taking this threat very seriously and working swiftly to mitigate any potential risks.

Here are some of the steps they’re taking, according to Dr. Rosemary Sifford, Associate Administrator with USDA’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

Overview of the ASF situation in the Dominican Republic.

Since 2019, the USDA has engaged in cooperative surveillance with the Dominican Republic to ensure the safety of pork and pork producers coming into the U.S. Currently, the USDA collects samples from 19 of the 32 provinces in the Dominican Republic.

About a month ago, these regular quarterly testing efforts revealed ASF-positive samples from two separate provinces -- Monte Christi and Sanchez -- which are 100 miles apart. The samples were drawn from a priority set, meaning the animals were showing clinical signs of ASF.

Because ASF can be easily transmitted via fomites, or materials that can carry the infection from host to host, USDA has ramped up their vigilance about how to keep the virus out of the U.S. The biggest risk comes because the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, are just over 200 miles apart -- a relatively short distance in global terms.

Although the Dominican Republic is leading their response, the U.S. is providing key testing support, as well as personal protective equipment (PPE) for their staff.

Coordination with other U.S. government entities.

USDA continues to consult with other U.S. and world government officials about how best to support these response and mitigation measures. These include the Department of Homeland Security, Customs & Border Protection, the U.S Coast Guard, and the Puerto Rican government, as well as the government of nearby island Haiti and the United Nations.

The top priority is quickly containing and controlling the outbreak within the Dominican Republic, both to protect the Dominican pork herd as well as to stop spread to the U.S. Specifically, CBP is working to step up their surveillance efforts to keep any and all prohibited products from entering the country.

For example, a major threat comes in the form of garbage disposal from other countries. Many ships and airplanes have foreign garbage and food waste that could carry the virus, so there’s an effort to ensure proper disposal systems are in place.

USDA is also working with other federal agencies to share information and see if there are other support mechanisms at their disposal, as well as partnering with state governments to get the message out as much as possible.

In addition, on August 6th there was a federal order establishing additional requirements for importing dogs from countries where ASF exists. Dogs, their bedding, and other materials present a risk pathway. Dogs must now be bathed and the bedding properly disposed of, and the crates properly cleaned before they move any further within the U.S.

Additionally, wildlife services are working to conduct feral swine control. There has been a plan to eradicate feral swine over a six year period, but in the wake of this outbreak, more resources are now being put into that plan, with the goal of cutting the population in half over the next 15-18 months.

However, there is good news. Because classical swine fever has existed in the Caribbean for quite a while, many of these mitigations are already in place. USDA’s goal is to build on current infrastructure to enhance their effectiveness.

Outreach & education efforts

Risk mitigation can’t happen without public engagement. USDA is leveraging social media campaigns to share information materials in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Hmong, and traditional Chinese to educate all populations about the risks and how to avoid them.

Most of these educational efforts focus on the producer, and increasing their awareness of the clinical signs of ASF in pigs. These include death, high fever, loss of appetite, depression, red skin, vomiting, diarrhea, respiratory distress, and abortions.

USDA is asking if any producers see these signs, that they report them immediately to a veterinarian or state animal health official to give them the opportunity to find evidence of the disease as early as possible.

There are also additional biosecurity practices that USDA is educating producers on. This includes properly cooking any garbage before feeding, limiting interfaces with feral swine, truck washing, and being careful during personnel entry and exit.

The big question: What if there’s a positive ASF case in the U.S.?

If USDA was to detect an ASF-positive case in the U.S., it would trigger federal, state, tribal, and local emergency response plans. These highly detailed plans contain a number of strategies to respond to emergencies like disease outbreak.

One of the biggest concerns is that OIE doesn’t differentiate between a country and their territories. So if the virus jumped from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, the entire U.S. would be considered “affected,” significantly disrupting U.S. trade patterns.

In that case, USDA would work with trading partners to regionalize the U.S. mainland by demonstrating that there are mitigations in place that protect the mainland from trade with Puerto Rico.

There would also be a mandatory 72-hour movement standstill implemented, that would require all live swine and semen movements to stop during that time, giving USDA the opportunity to evaluate where exactly there’s an issue and what the extent of the issue is, and hopefully get some control measures back in place. USDA would also hope that there are plans to get things restarted as quickly as possible in the event of a national standstill.

Since there’s currently no treatment and no vaccine for ASF, quarantine and movement controls are the only tools we have to treat the virus. This is why early response and risk mitigation is so critical, and why USDA is taking bold steps now to keep our herds and food supply safe.