Rampaging US pig virus spreads concern in Europe

There are fears that a virus that has killed millions of piglets in North America and sent retail pork prices to record highs could reach Europe in the coming months, and little has been done to try to prevent its arrival.

Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDv) has killed about seven million young pigs since first being identified in the United States almost a year ago. The virus attacks the gut of piglets, preventing them from absorbing fluids and leading to death by dehydration. Older pigs normally survive.

"We are just watching with horror how it is rampaging across America, and no-one in Europe seems to be the least bit interested," said Zoe Davies, general manager of Britain's National Pig Association.

The virus can spread through fecal matter and US experts said tiny amounts can infect huge numbers of animals. A tablespoon of PEDv-infected manure is enough to infect the entire 66 million-head US hog herd, they estimate. There is also evidence that feed products may play a role, particularly those made from pig blood.

Blood products such as pig plasma are commonly used in post-weaning piglet diets around the world, including in Europe.

"Some protein-rich by-products, such as dried blood, are incorporated in feed products. This can go in the feed of other pigs, spreading the disease," said Bernard Vallat, director general of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). He added thermal treatment of these products could kill the virus.

Some believe the deadly strain originated in China and has already traveled thousands of miles to North America, though how it achieved this remains unclear.

It is nearly identical to one that infected pigs in China's Anhui province, according to a report published in the American Society of Microbiology journal mBio.

"We find genetic similarities between the two, but we did not trace the virus between China and the United States," OIE's Vallat said.

Spain has the largest breeding herd in Europe, while Germany is the top pork producer.

"We are monitoring the PEDv situation in the United States and other countries with concern," said Klemens Schulz, spokesman for German pig producers' association ZDS.

"It is a little surprising that it is not much of a theme [in Europe], considering the impact it has had."

The virus is not transmissible to humans and there are no food-safety concerns, but there could be substantial financial costs for countries where the virus strikes.

The foot-and-mouth outbreak in Britain in 2001, for example, led to the slaughter of more than ten million sheep and cattle in a bid to stop the disease spreading. It cost the country about £8 billion pounds ($13.5 billion), with tourism among the sectors hit. 

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