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Deadly African virus threatens British pig industry

23 November 2009

Deadly African swine fever virus poses a threat to Britain’s pig industry, following an outbreak in northern Russia. There is no cure or vaccine for the highly contagious virus that kills nearly all pigs that catch it.

Scientists at the BBSRC’s Institute for Animal Health (IAH), and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) say that the threat should be taken seriously. The virus came to Georgia in south-eastern Europe in 2007. Since then it has recently spread 1,200 miles, close to European Union.

“Our genetic fingerprinting of the virus in Georgia indicated that it came from South-Eastern Africa. We believe that the virus was transported to Georgia, which is on the Black Sea, by ship.” says Dr Linda Dixon, Head of the ASF research programme within the IAH. “Most likely the ships were carrying pork meat or products that were contaminated with ASFV, the waste from which was eaten by pigs in Georgia.” The IAH is the specialist diagnostic reference laboratory for ASF on behalf of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), and Defra.

From Georgia the virus spread into neighbouring Armenia, Azerbaijan and southern parts of the Russian Federation. In October of this year the virus jumped to St. Petersburg in north-west Russia. Infected, recycled pig waste from southern Russia transported to the north is again believed to have been the means by which the virus was spread. The virus can survive for months in cold store meat, and for years in frozen carcasses.

IAH’s Dr Chris Oura, Head of the OIE reference laboratory and designated OIE expert for ASF, says “All parts of the animal can contain the virus, such that contaminated offal and off-cuts fed to pigs are likely to result in infection. The virus causes a haemorrhagic fever, with signs of disease being 5 to 15 days after infection. Death usually follows within 1 to 7 days of the appearance of the illness.”

There is no vaccine against ASFV; attempts to make one by conventional means have not been successful. Control of the disease is by slaughter and strict adherence to movements on and off farms. But control is difficult, the virus being so contagious. It took more than thirty years to eradicate it from Spain and Portugal following its introduction there in the 1950s. The virus remains endemic on the Italian island of Sardinia.

“We are using genetic manipulation of the virus to try to make a vaccine against ASF.” says Dr Dixon. “We are removing genes from the virus to see if we can produce a virus that still grows in the pig and induces protection but without causing disease. We are also identifying precisely which ASFV components induce protection in pigs; these will also be used in vaccine development.”


About IAH

The Institute for Animal Health, an institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, delivers high quality fundamental, strategic and applied science focussed on infectious diseases of farm animals. This knowledge is used to advance veterinary science, and to enhance the sustainability of livestock farming and food security.

In addition to research output, the IAH provides diagnostic services for a number of diseases and gives expert advice to the UK government and international agencies ( IAH is an institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

External contact

Dr Dave Cavanagh, IAH press office

tel: 01635 577241
mob: 07789 941568


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382