Friday, September 20, 2019

The Cold War Roots of the African Swine Flu Plague

[This is the script of a segment on African Swine Flu that I did for Newsbud China Watch in July 2018.  Things have gotten worse since then, with the virus spreading to South Korea.]

As the US Beltway obsesses on its China threat calculations, the global pig industry and the global agricultural economy are being transformed by a lethal virus: African Swine Fever, or ASF.

ASF is not transmittable to humans but the current form of the virus is absolutely lethal to pigs and highly contagious, and it is sweeping through China.

The Chinese pig-raising industry is being remade as the government has quarantined districts and banned shipments of pigs in order to contain the virus.  Chinese pig production will drop up to 40% as pig farmers slaughter hogs they can’t ship or sell.  Since pig farming relied on imported soybean meal for feed, and feed imports are going to drop, China’s ability to import massive amounts of American agricultural products—a key source of Chinese leverage in the trade war—is under threat.

But on the other hand China will be buying more U.S. pork—though there’s no way the U.S. can fill the PRC pork hole by itself—so there’s that.

The virus is extremely robust and can survive outside of a live host and inside pork products—including the animal feed in which most pig blood shows up—and the threat of swine fever from China to Taiwan’s pork industry has become a political talking point for the anti-PRC Taiwanese government and media.

Even the 2019 World Pork Expo in Des Moines, Iowa in the United States was canceled out of an abundance of caution as the organizers put it.

It looks like the Chinese pig industry, which has almost 700 million hogs and produces half the world’s pork, will turn its back on the small mom and pop producer that formed the backbone of the industry, in favor of massive industrial facilities that can invest the money in the procedures and equipment to manage the biohazard—and also produce gigantic reeking lagoons of pig excrement.

That’s what progress smells like in the pig industry.

The Chinese government is pushing the narrative that it’s got a handle on the epidemic, but according to a US delegation that visited in March, that’s not the case:

“African swine fever is very bad. There are reported cases all across the country, but many cases are not reported. They have found the disease in sausage, in processed meat, and in dumplings. Although the government repeatedly tells consumers that it has nothing to do with health of the human, people are still concerned. Pork consumption is going down.”

African swine fever is uncontrollable. It has spread from China to Vietnam and will likely soon be in Thailand, South Korea, and Japan. The situation in China is much worse than four months ago.

Well, where did this menace come from?

African Swine Flu came into China from the north—from Russia.  Before that it ravaged the Baltic states and Poland, leading to the restructuring of the pig industry up there.

Before that, it came from the Caucasus, and the trail ends—or starts—in the nation of Georgia.

And maybe African Swine Fever was held in a government lab in Georgia and got out with a little help from the violently anti-Russian government of Mikhel Saakashvili.

Back in 2012, when ASF was just a little regional blip that had been roiling the Caucasus for five years, the Russian consumer protection agency blamed Georgia for releasing the virus:

“ASF came to us from Georgia. First, of course, to Ossetia, and then to the Krasnodar and Stavropol regions. There are signs that this situation is artificially injected.  It is economic sabotage.”

The Russians might know more than a little about African Swine Flu.

The African Swine Fever that has made its way from Georgia through Russia to the Baltics and Poland and now to China and Asia is genetically distinct from the previous outbreak, which was traced to exchanges between Portugal and its Angolan colony in the 1950s.

The Georgian outbreak that occurred in 2007 is related to a version of the virus first identified in southeast Africa in the 1970s.  To be specific, Mozambique and Zambia, with Mozambique a major Soviet client at the time.  Soviet agricultural experts worked extensively on aid projects in Mozambique.

Maybe Soviet scientists collected some samples of the local swine fever variant with hopes of developing a vaccine, the as yet unattainable holy grail of ASF researchers. 

But maybe the Soviet bureaucracy had a better idea and the samples were transferred to the Soviet bioweapons program to be genetically modified for increased lethality and put into the arsenal.  It’s known that by the 1980s the Soviet Union developed a second-generation ASF bioweapon in its so-called “Ekology” program for agricultural warfare.

And maybe some of that engineered African Swine Flu was held in Georgia when Georgia was a piece of the Soviet Union and part of the Soviet biological warfare system producing anti-livestock biological weapons as well as veterinary vaccines at multiple facilities. 

And maybe some of that ended up in the labs of independent post Soviet Georgia under the administration of pro-American Russia hating dingbat entrepreneur Mikhel Saakashvili and somehow found its way into the wild, well onto the hog farms of Russia and its allies.

So, is the catastrophe in Eurasian pig-raising actually blowback from the Soviet biological weapons program engineered by  Mikhel Saakashvili?

Could be.
And consider this.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. military didn’t help the government of newly independent Georgia destroy its stocks of dangerous pathogens; it helped preserve them…through the establishment of Georgia’s repository for dangerous pathogens, the bizarrely named Pathogen Asset Control System, which is now maintained at a US funded facility in Tbilsi, the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research.

Think about that as you chew on your pork chop.