By Patrick McCauley
Alumnus, American Military University
African Swine Fever (ASF) is a potential tool of agroterrorism that could inflict economic hardship on the United States. Nefarious agents might use ASF as a terror campaign weapon in the 2020s.
African Swine Fever Has a 100 Percent Mortality Rate
ASF is a viral disease that affects swine, domestic pigs and feral swine alike. The fever has a nearly 100 percent mortality rate. It is typically spread by direct contact with an infected pig, by contact with the infected animal’s bodily fluids, or when the animal comes in contact with contaminated objects such as farm equipment. In December 2019, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) reported that ASF was present in 11 countries in Europe, 10 in Asia and four in Africa.
There is no vaccine against ASF. Quarantine and destruction (culling) are the only ways to reduce an ASF outbreak.
Feral Pigs Found in 35 US States
One of the potential ways of spreading ASF is through infected feral hogs coming in contact with domestic pigs. It is estimated that in the U.S., there are some six million feral pigs in 35 states – from California and Oregon, along the southern border, and as far north as Vermont. In 2018, U.S. pork exports totaled nearly $6.4 billion. An ASF outbreak would have severe consequences for the industry, with harsh restrictions levied against the exportation of U.S. pork.
North Korea and African Swine Fever
In May 2019, North Korea reported to the OIE an outbreak of ASF. In mid-October, the South Korean government deployed military snipers, civilian hunters, and drones with thermal imaging sensors to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to shoot and kill any wild boars observed crossing from North Korea.
According to a North Korea defector familiar with North Korean farm animal issues, animal health officials in the DPRK often spare the lives of sick animals. Despite the heavily guarded DMZ, wild hogs are still able to cross into the South.
ASF as an Ideal Agroterrorism Tool
ASF has several characteristics that make it ideal for agroterrorism. Since ASF is not zoonotic – i.e., it cannot affect humans – infected animals, their bodily fluids and tissues can be safely handled by trusted agents of a hostile government or terror group.
Several studies have shown that the disease is highly resilient in the wild and can survive a wide variety of temperatures and environments. The disease can live for months in soil, feces, urine, and other bodily fluids of pigs, which makes harvesting fresh ASF material for weaponization, storage, and transportation a relatively easy process.
Drones Dropping ASF-Infected Meat
One method for launching an ASF attack is by placing feral hogs near the target country’s borders. That allows the hogs to roam toward the target’s centers of swine production. In the U.S., infected feral hogs would be free to roam across the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.- Canada borders.
The use of drones dropping infected pork meat over domestic swine pens is another method of attack. In mid-December 2019, Chinese officials found a farming unit in Heilongjiang province operating a transmitter designed to jam drone signals to prevent criminal gangs from dropping ASF-tainted pork on domestic pig farms. In July, Chinese authorities reported criminal gangs were faking ASF outbreaks to force farmers to sell their healthy pigs at vastly reduced prices.
ASF Response Strategy
The United States, Canada and Mexico are taking the ASF threat seriously. In the fall of 2018, U.S. government officials met with pork industry groups. They released guidance on the U.S. response to an ASF outbreak called the Foreign Animal Disease Preparedness and Response Plan—Disease Response Strategy: African Swine Fever (2019).
The 2018 Farm Bill created the National Animal Disease Preparedness Response Program (NADPRP) and the National Animal Vaccine and Veterinary Countermeasures Bank (NAVVCB). The bill also provided $150 million in funding for fiscal years 2019-23. Last May, U.S. and Canadian animal health officials met in Ottawa and developed frameworks for export controls during an ASF outbreak. They strengthened measures to prevent the spread of ASF and established channels of communications for stakeholders.
In the closing days of 2019, ASF seemingly played a part in the Chinese government’s rescinding of its tariffs on U.S. exports, including pork.
Whether the virus is used as a tool of agroterrorism or is an accidental spread of a highly viral disease, ASF has certainly proven that, in the wrong hands, it could be catastrophic.
About the Author
Patrick McCauley is a 2013 American Military University (AMU) graduate with a master’s degree in intelligence studies. His military service spans more than 18 years, including stints on active-duty and with the Reserves. Patrick is a decorated combat veteran with numerous military awards and personal achievements. His analytical focus is on various strategic security matters.
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