Persistent pig pandemic | Inquirer Opinion
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Persistent pig pandemic

Unlike the human COVID-19 pandemic that appears to be behind us, the pig pandemic is still raging and causing tight supplies of pork, leading to continued high prices.

It has been nearly four years since the first outbreak of African swine fever (ASF) was reported in the Philippines. Before the ASF virus rampaged through our major swine-growing areas, pork prices had been steady at P190-P220 per kilo, since at least early 2018 (the earliest price data posted on the Department of Agriculture website). It escalated to P250-P280 by July 2020, P300-P320 by October 2020, and P370-P400 (reaching up to P450) by January 2021. By then, the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI) had estimated that about a third of the country’s swine population had been decimated by ASF. In July 2022, it was still at P320-P380. As of last week, the DA reported it at P280-P320, with highs still up to P390.


All this is in spite of eased importation of pork, for which government had temporarily reduced import tariffs to help ease supplies. But Filipino pork consumers overwhelmingly prefer buying it fresh rather than frozen, and our severely limited cold chain facilities (highlighted recently for onions) also limit our domestic markets’ absorptive capacity for imported pork. Clearly, ASF remains very much a problem. Why have things been so different between pigs and humans? Why is ASF still popping up and acting up in various provinces, even as COVID-19 has been largely controlled?

The continued lack of a vaccine for ASF is a fundamental difference. While several vaccines for COVID-19 had been developed within a year in different countries and rolled out massively even as tests on them were not fully conclusive, “large gaps in knowledge” have reportedly made it much more challenging to develop one for ASF. Vietnam has recently reported successful trials on a vaccine developed by a private company, and tests on the vaccine are now underway in the Philippines.


But vaccines aside, there’s much more involved. As we all saw in our early management of COVID-19, the clash between science on the one hand and politics and economics on the other puts major obstacles in the way of arresting the virus spread. To stop the virus, BAI prescribes “depopulation” of hog farms (meaning, culling or killing the animals) within a 500-meter radius of a known infected farm (until recently, this had been set at one kilometer). While science would dictate it, culling is strongly resisted from the perspective of both the individual grower and the local politician averse to depressing the local economy. To the hog grower, culling the herd means an outright loss, even with the government’s offer of compensation of P5,000 initially, later raised to P10,000 per animal culled, which is still much less than what he/she could get from the sale of a fully grown animal. The temptation is thus strong to sell off potentially or even confirmed infected hogs. And because ASF-tainted pork is said to have no harmful effect on humans, a less-than-honest grower would feel no compulsion to report infected animals, or even test them for the virus at all.

It is quite likely, then, that a lot of infected pork is being sold and consumed around without people knowing it. But even if it does no harm to humans, they could transmit the virus back to pigs when leftover tainted meat finds its way into the kitchen scraps fed to backyard-grown pigs as swill (kaning-baboy).

My veterinarian friend Dr. Rodolfo Barboza Jr., a disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation practitioner, asserts that burning and burying is still the best way to control the virus, along with restricting the movement of swine, transport vehicles, farm hands, and animal health workers from ASF affected areas. The sale of ASF-infected meat must also be outlawed, but no mechanism is in place to guarantee that no such meat is sold. All these require political will, especially on the part of local governments. Barboza attests that the province of Batangas managed to control ASF precisely because its leaders had the political will to follow strict BAI guidelines. Absent that, expect the pig pandemic to be around for much longer.

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