There is a corner of the country that has to worry about a virus that does not affect humans, but which could still cause damage that is difficult to quantify and which makes it essential to apply rapid and drastic measures to limit its spread. The good news is that we have known it for some time: it is the African swine fever virus (ASFV, from the English African swine fever virus), which affects pigs and wild boars and against which we have been fighting in Italy since 1978, when Genotype I arrived. The bad news is that for the first time the Genotype II of the disease has reached the continent: for about three weeks an area of about 2,000 km2 on the border between Liguria and Piedmont has been on total alert for the arrival of African swine fever ( PSA in Italian), and tens of thousands of pigs are at risk in the coming months.
WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT: despite the name refers to the plague (and therefore to a bacterium), “African swine fever is a virus”, as Vittorio Guberti, ISPRA veterinarian and professor at the University of Bologna explains: “it is a tick virus , and in Africa, whence it came, it is found in the warthog. Both ticks and warthogs, however, are healthy and asymptomatic carriers. It was when we Europeans introduced the pig to Africa that we saw it in action: the animals took the virus from the ticks and died ».
The name of the disease, however, has a connection with the human plague: «The word” plague “is used to define all the pathogens that damage the epithelium of blood vessels and cause internal bleeding, and therefore bruises and buboes appear externally. Both classical and African swine fever have these effects: the viruses belong to different families, but they have identical effects ». In Europe, Genotype II of African swine fever arrived in 2007, in Georgia, in the port of Poti, on the Black Sea: «The virus arrived by ship, and from there it spread throughout the continent; first in Armenia and Azerbaijan, then in Russia, after which its path forked: in the east it arrived first in China, and then spread to all of Southeast Asia, while in the west it also crossed the ocean, this summer , and was found in Santo Domingo and Haiti. ‘ A global spread caused by us humans, who have transported ASF around the world in ships and planes.
WHAT DAMAGE DOES PSA DO? «African swine fever», Guberti explains, «has a very short incubation and an equally rapid course: the internal bleeding caused by the virus kills an animal in a few days. Virtually all infected animals die: the lethality of ASF is 90% ». The virus is contagious and very resistant in the environment, and able to survive for months outside a host (and even indefinitely, if it is in frozen meat). It affects only wild boars and pigs, and is not transmitted to other species – not even to humans, as Guberti is keen to point out immediately at the beginning of our conversation: given the period, we imagine that the question has already been asked several times. However, this exclusivity does not make it any less dangerous: in addition to the damage it can cause to wild boar populations, there are those it causes to pig farms, which we will discuss shortly. In addition, in other areas of the planet (in particular in Indonesia and its surroundings), some rare species of the genus Sus, from babirusa to bearded boar, are at risk of extinction.
WHAT IS HAPPENING IN ITALY? As mentioned above, the arrival of ASF is nothing new for our country: «The Genotype I of the virus has been present in Italy since 1978, when it arrived in Sardinia. Sardinia, however, is an island and therefore relatively easier to manage: it took us a long time, but we are finally in sight of the goal of eradicating the virus ». The situation regarding the areas currently infected, affected by an epidemic of Genotype II, is different. The first carcass of wild boar that died of ASF was identified on 7 January in the municipality of Ovada, in Piedmont; at least 12 more have been found since then (data is up to date at the time of writing, January 27, but that could change rapidly). «The arrival in Liguria and Piedmont is worrying for many reasons. First of all because the regions involved are not only two but five: infected animals have been found on the border with Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, and Tuscany is also at risk. From here, the virus could start to run: if it hit regions where pig farming is a driving economic activity, it would cause incalculable damage. An example? If it arrived in the areas where Parma ham is produced, that product would no longer be able to leave the infected area, unless it obtained exemptions and passed a series of health checks that would increase production costs. “
The problem is therefore twofold: on the one hand, the wild boar population risks being decimated and becoming the reservoir of the virus, causing the infection to spread on a large scale; on the other hand, the presence of the virus in wild boar poses a high risk of spreading the disease in pigs, putting the entire production chain of meat and its transformation at risk.
SO HOW DO WE DO? How can we fight this epidemic? There is nothing to decide: everything is already written in a European Union directive that provides for a containment and research phase, the one in which we are currently and which consists in blocking all activities on the infected territory, therefore a ban on hunting, collecting mushrooms and truffles, trekking, fishing; even dogs are not allowed to enter because they could carry around, stuck to their fur or paws, soil and mud touched by infected boars and could potentially transmit the infection to local farms. At the same time as this phase of searching for carcasses, natural and pseudonatural barriers such as rivers and above all highways must be exploited to place nets to prevent the passage of wild boars from the infected area to the Po valley.
The final act, the final decision on what to do once the containment phase is over, is up to the Ministry of Health but is already written in the SANTE / 7113/2015 directive, and provides for the total eradication of the disease from the territory, therefore the killing of all wild boars within the area of infection, with a subsequent and progressive repopulation after some time. A massive killing of this kind, some associations speak of over 50 thousand wild boars to be killed, is not something that volunteer hunters can do alone. A regional source explains that such an operation, from the logistical point of view, is not sustainable by hunters, voluntary or not, it is something that the state must do and with great strength and determination, because time is a key factor.
“We cannot afford to live with this disease – explains Daniela Pastorino, intercepting the mood of both the hunters and the regional experts who are working on the case – we must hurry because time is running out”