* American virus almost identical to Chinese strain
* EU has no harmonised measures to tackle virus threat
By Nigel Hunt
LONDON, May 1 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,
industry sources said.
Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDv) has killed around 7
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
"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 faecal matter, and U.S. experts
say tiny amounts can infect huge numbers of animals - a
tablespoon of PEDv-infected manure is enough to infect the
entire 66 million-head U.S. 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),
adding thermal treatment of these products could kill the virus.
Some believe the deadly strain originated in China and has
already travelled 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
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 there."
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 10 million sheep and cattle in
a bid to stop the disease spreading and cost the country about 8
billion pounds ($13.5 billion), with tourism among the sectors
Frederic Vincent, a spokesman for the European Commission,
said there were no harmonised measures in place in the EU
against the virus, adding it was discussed in a meeting with
experts from member states two weeks ago.
"The Commission is following closely, together with Member
States, the situation with a view to update the risk
assessment," he added.
A milder strain of PEDv was identified in Europe in the
early 1970s but did not lead to widespread problems and slowly
disappeared from herds as immunity developed.
"It has obviously mutated and become more voracious.
Effectively, our herd is naive (has no immunity) if we get it,"
NPA's Davies said.
A spokesman for the European Animal Protein Association said
its members were testing their blood products, but all results
had been negative so far, adding only blood from EU pigs was
being used to produce feed sold in Europe.
"There are no imports," he said.
NPA's Davies said improved biosecurity measures were vital,
with evidence that some trucks that had arrived virus-free at
abattoirs in the United States left carrying the virus.
"We have been doing a lot of work in the UK on lorry washes
at abattoirs and trying to ensure they are as effective as they
can be," she said.
If it does arrive in Europe, it is likely to spread quickly
across a continent where many piglets are born in one country
and slaughtered in another.
"Germany, unfortunately, has a high risk level as we are a
transit land for pig transport and we import large numbers of
live piglets from the Netherlands and Denmark," German pig
producers' association spokesman Schulz said.
OIE's Vallat, however, was confident its spread to Europe
"By reinforcing measures on everything that goes into farms,
including feed, we can protect them from viruses, including this
new one. We are not facing a totally new situation. We know how
to protect farms," he said.
"We need to create a bubble and that everything that goes in
and out of it be sterilised."
($1 = 0.5922 British Pounds)
(Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis in Brussels, Sybille de
La Hamaide in Paris and Michael Hogan in Hamburg; Editing by
Veronica Brown and Will Waterman)