Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Why did African swine fever spread so fast in China?

Systemic problems in China may have accelerated the spread of African swine fever, a dangerous pig virus that has no cure or vaccine. According to an investigative piece by Chinese business portal Caixin last month, divergent interests of central and local officials, money worries and "political tasks" created incentives to hide disease reports. Lacking reliable information, farmers panicked and liquidated herds when they heard rumors of disease in their neighborhood. Big regional price differences due to localized pig liquidations and quarantines created strong incentives to truck pigs and pathogens around the country. Traders flouting bans easily evaded authorities--and were often abetted by corrupt veterinary officials who sold fraudulent health certificates and ear tags.

China's first cases of African swine fever (ASF) were reported in August 2018. Within 8 months the virus had spread to all 31 provincial regions, including the remote Himalayan region of Tibet and the island of Hainan. As of July 2019, Chinese officials say the swine herd has shrunk by 32 percent from a year ago. ASF has also spread to all neighboring pork-producing countries, except Thailand. In contrast, the spread has been slower in Europe. Last year Belgium discovered ASF in wild boars, but the disease has not penetrated commercial farms in Western Europe. While ASF cases have been popping up in Eastern Europe, the spread has not been as rapid or devastating as in China.

Why did the virus spread so fast? Caixin reporters point to divergent interests between central and local officials in China's multi-tiered governance system, based on their interviews in several major hog-producing provinces.

Caixin blames an "ostrich policy" of refusing to report disease for creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and misinformation. The reporters found that ASF cases were underreported in many places. They learned from interviews that Shandong Province had its first cases of ASF in Weifang and Linyi prefectures not long after the first officially-reported case in Liaoning Province, but Shandong officials did not report them. Shandong Province has reported only one case in February 2019. Officials suppressed reporting of the disease until April 2019 when they reported that sales by breeding farms in the province were down 41 percent year-on-year. Caixin pointed out that Shandong has clearly more than one case of ASF if sales shrank that much.

Reporting disease became a "game" as local officials worried about budgetary costs of compensating farmers for culling animals and their accountability for keeping the disease under control, Caixin said. All swine within a certain radius have to be killed when ASF is discovered. Compensation of 1200 yuan per head paid to farmers is financed by prescribed shares of central and local funds. However, local officials don't always get funds promised by central and provincial governments, so they worried that they would end up paying for compensation if they declared a disease outbreak.

Another disincentive for local officials was their accountability for allowing the disease to spread. Provinces held "ASF work meetings" where local officials were warned that preventing spread of the disease was their "political task," and they were ordered to ensure "no new occurrences."

A local agricultural official told Caixin that prefecture-level officials refused to accept a report confirming that the ASF virus caused pig deaths. Instead the deaths were attributed to classical swine fever and blue ear disease in reports to provincial authorities. The prefecture-level officials blamed township agricultural officials for failing to vaccinate pigs against these other diseases and forced them to buy a truckload of vaccines that were not needed.

The culling-subsidy game pitted farmers against local officials. A prominent example was the proprietor of Dawu breeding farm in Hebei Province who announced on social media in February that his farm had lost 20,000 pigs to ASF and 5600 animals still alive would have to be culled. His social media post publicly appealed to local government officials to confirm the disease. Several days later, the Ministry of Agriculture posted a notice on its web site for publicizing disease outbreaks announcing that a farm in Hebei Province had 5600 pigs that had had an outbreak of ASF but it did not list the number of sick pigs or mortalities as most such reports do. That was the only ASF case in Hebei Province ever reported on the Ministry's disease notification web site, but anecdotal reports suggest the province's swine herd was decimated by the disease.
The proprietor of a pig farm in Hebei Province posted photos of dead pigs and this banner on social media. The banner says the farm lost 15,000 dead pigs, and "we think it is African swine fever and ask the government to confirm!" 
The farmer who reported Shandong Province's only officially-acknowledged ASF case told Caixin he was cursed by his neighbors for reporting the disease. The farmer was due large amounts of compensation but he only received 20 percent of the promised funds (in eastern provinces like Shandong, the central government pays 20% and the local and provincial governments pay the rest). He said the central government promptly delivered their share of the funds, but the local government dragged its feet on paying for 4500 culled animals and a demolished barn. The farmer claims to be near bankruptcy, having received debt collection notices he is unable to pay.

Caixin suggests that the uncertainty created by the lack of transparency and compensation prompted farmers to liquidate their herds when they heard rumors of a local disease outbreak. Farmers worried that their herd might become infected if the disease was nearby. More importantly, once disease was officially reported in a district a quarantine would be declared, preventing farmers from selling their animals outside the local area. Pigs of all sizes and sows would then be sent to local slaughterhouses, en masse, driving down the local price.

Panic liquidation of herds and quarantines created big profit opportunities for black market dealers who shipped millions of animals from one province to another to take advantage of huge geographic differences in price. According to Caixin, restrictions on transport of animals were "just pieces of waste paper." Where quarantines were in place, traders evaded them by changing license plates on trucks crossing provincial borders, using counterfeit ear tags on pigs, or taking back roads to evade inspectors. Trucking diseased pigs hundreds or thousands of miles was the primary means of spreading the ASF virus nationwide so quickly.

Some criminal gangs took advantage of the information vacuum by planting dead pigs on farms and spreading rumors that they had died of ASF. When farmers panicked and sold off their herds to avoid the disease, gang members posing as traders bought up pigs at steeply discounted prices to transport to other cities where prices were higher. These schemes reportedly could clear out an entire district's pigs "overnight." In May 2019 a local industry association in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province issued a warning about such "Stir-fry Pig Gangs"(炒猪团伙) in their area, but it took two additional months for the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs to issue a nationwide warning about the gangs.

The long-distance trucking of pigs had been encouraged by a "raising southern pigs in the north" strategy promoted by the agriculture ministry in recent years to mitigate severe pollution problems around major cities and southern provinces. The plan called for closing pig farms in pollution-prone southern regions and metropolitan areas while increasing hog production in Northeastern provinces. The hogs would be shipped hundreds of miles south for slaughter and consumption. In fact, the northeast was the first region to be infected with ASF, and one of the first cases was found in a truckload of hogs delivered to a slaughterhouse in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province. The hogs had been purchased in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang and trucked about 1300 miles south. There are more recent anecdotal reports of pigs trucked from Guangxi and Sichuan provinces thousands of miles to China's east coast.

Chronic neglect of local veterinary capacity also contributed to spread of the disease. Caixin points out that the vice minister of agriculture overseeing disease control--formerly the nation's chief veterinarian--has warned that under-funded, disorganized local veterinary teams using outdated equipment and infrastructure are a weak link and a vulnerability. The chief veterinarian of a prefecture in Shandong said that services at township veterinary stations often exist only on paper. Underpaid veterinary technicians have used their positions to make money by buying and selling ear tags, and corrupt veterinarians have been implicated in several cases of fraudulent veterinary certificates and insurance fraud during the ASF epidemic. According to Caixin, one veterinary official in Shandong interviewed in an April radio broadcast pledged to form a working group, investigate the disease problem, and carry out remediation measures, but local people complained that they never saw any actions.

Caixin is hopeful that ASF will force the government and industry to address weaknesses. In July, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs issued decrees calling for overhauls of veterinary services and inspection at slaughterhouses and transportation, and sent out a team to investigate shoddy or corrupt veterinary practices in ten provinces. However, there have been complaints about these same problems for 20 years or more. A decade ago, there was an earlier push to mandate that counties and provinces include funding for veterinary stations in their budgets, upgrade equipment and vaccine distribution, build labs, and require veterinary technicians to pass qualification exams.

Systemic problems inherent in the Chinese system may also prevent a full recovery from the epidemic. Chinese officials constantly juggling various priorities--and always in a hurry to address the latest crisis--never complete any program before another problem grabs their attention. Thus, no problem is ever completely solved, so the same problems fester and keep popping up intermittently.

A veterinary researcher with China's Academy of Agricultural Sciences told Caixin that the country's hog farming sector is now at a point of "life or death," and that the fight against ASF is a protracted war, not a quick battle. He described ASF as a "warning sign" that showed there is much to be done.

Yet top Chinese officials have now decided that soaring pork prices are the most immediate threat to the all-important priority of maintaining "stability." Thus, top leaders have now declared that the virus is "under control" and ordered news media to report only good news about ASF. With the epidemic still a grave danger, the central leadership is now urging local officials to encourage a rapid rebound in pork production and news media are filled with reports of companies and farms making lots of money and restocking their pig barns. Local officials are now being advised to ease up on environmental restrictions and offer loans and subsidies to boost pork production.


Dawei said...

I wonder why there is never any mention of wild boars.
In Europe, it is an important focus of the authorities.
Are there no wild pigs in China? ;-)

dimsums said...

China does have wild boars but they don't seem to have played a major role in spread of ASF in China. Chinese officials were watching for ASF in wild boars on the Russian border in May 2018--3 months before the first officially-reported case on a commercial farm a year ago
ASF was discovered in a wild boar in Jilin Province last year but it did not match the strain found in commercial farms.