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Pennsylvania officials are continuing to refine the tactics they would use to respond to an African swine fever outbreak.

The disease has blazed across Asia and Europe in the past few years, unleashing particular devastation in China. The Americas have so far escaped, but if the disease is detected, a rapid, well-oiled response could limit the damage.

“We must be ever vigilant at keeping it out,” Alex Hamberg, Pennsylvania’s assistant state veterinarian, said in a Feb. 18 web meeting with PennAg Industries Association.

Pennsylvania would have a key role in any U.S. response to African swine fever. The state ranks 12th in pork production and fourth in hog processing. Not only does the state raise a lot of hogs, but other states also rely on Pennsylvania to get their pigs to market, Hamberg said.

Pennsylvania participated in a recent landmark in African swine fever planning — a 2019 tabletop exercise in which USDA and the 14 largest swine-producing states simulated a response to an outbreak. As part of the drill, Pennsylvania also conducted a field exercise at a Lancaster County farm.

Based on that experience, the state Ag Department decided it needed to revamp the way it assigned responsibilities during an emergency response.

In the past, whoever reached the site first became the site manager, and everyone else figured out something to do. Now, groups are assigned to be experts in depopulation, decontamination and other tasks.

“If there is an event and a need to deploy in an emergency situation, there’s no time spent figuring out who’s doing what,” Hamberg said. “We already know what we’re doing. We already know how we’re doing it.”

Since the dry run two years ago, Pennsylvania has conducted follow-up exercises to get employees comfortable in their roles and fine-tune its plans.

States Look to Develop Consistent Pig Movement Permitting Requirements

The states from the 2019 exercise, plus an extra one, are also working together on a common set of pig movement and permitting requirements that they would all recognize during an African swine fever outbreak.

Standardized paperwork would allow pigs to get moving again quickly after the 72-hour national halt that USDA would call if the disease is confirmed on U.S. shores.

“We don’t want to be sitting there at hour 73 trying to figure out and negotiate with other states with ‘Oh, what will you accept?’ ‘What will I accept?’” Hamberg said. “We need to make sure that we’ve got all of that hashed out and thought out well in advance.”

That planning includes establishing rules for on-farm sampling. There may not be enough government veterinarians to do all of the on-farm testing required during an outbreak — and sending vets to multiple farms is a biosecurity risk anyway — so the states may create a certified sampler program.

Trained farm employees or other industry members could collect the samples from the pigs and leave them at the end of the lane for a state official to pick up. Shared protocols would ensure that sampling was being done at the same quality across all participating states, Hamberg said.

Thoroughly checking a farm for African swine fever means taking blood samples from 300 to 350 pigs. To process so many animals, the state will need help from vets and farm employees who know how to restrain swine, said Kevin Brightbill, the state veterinarian.

Lessons From African Swine Fever May Be Applied to Other Threats

The risk of African swine fever entering the United States has not abated. The pathogen can persist in meat, and customs inspectors have intercepted a lot of smuggled pork products in the last few years, said Doug Gladue, a senior scientist at USDA.

But Pennsylvania is not limiting its preparations to African swine fever. The state is looking to streamline its response to any animal disease outbreak.

The state has been maintaining separate response plans for each malady but is moving toward a single “high consequence disease” response plan that would include appendices for the specific diseases.

“A lot of the principles are the same, regardless of the disease,” Hamberg said.

This strategy should ease the response to diseases that become problems in the future, he said.

After all, creating an animal disease response plan is not a one-time process. The plan needs to be updated as the threats change.

“We need to be prepared for whatever that next thing is when it gets here,” Hamberg said.