DAVID GREENE, HOST:
China is home to about half the world's population of pigs. That is why authorities there are scrambling to contain outbreaks of the African swine fever. This is a deadly virus that has killed thousands of pigs and is now spreading fast. It could lead to skyrocketing prices. And that's a big worry in China, which is the world's largest consumer of pork. NPR's Rob Schmitz has more.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIGS SNORTING)
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Farmer Gao Yongfei has never paid more attention to his herd of more than 5,000 pigs. That's because just over a week ago, hundreds of pigs at nearby farms started dying from a mysterious virus. And now Gao and his staff are checking his stock for symptoms of African swine fever.
GAO YONGFEI: (Through interpreter) You know the pig is sick if its mouth has turned dark, and it's acting crazy. When you find a pig that has the fever, you need to slaughter it immediately.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIG SNORTING)
SCHMITZ: Gao's pig farm is in Yueqing, a city in China's southeastern province of Zhejiang. It was the third place in China where authorities reported an outbreak of African swine fever since early August. In a little more than a month, around 900 pigs have died and tens of thousands have been killed to try and prevent the virus from spreading.
GAO: (Through interpreter) It's spreading very quickly, and this disease is very dangerous. We're all scared.
SCHMITZ: So are scientists. Juergen Richt, a professor of veterinary medicine at Kansas State University, is an expert on the African swine fever. He says, although the virus does not affect humans, it's shown a capacity to kill herds of pigs quickly. It's highly contagious, and infected pigs die within 5 to 10 days.
JUERGEN RICHT: It's not only the problem that this virus is deadly for pigs; the problem is also we do not have a vaccine.
SCHMITZ: And without a vaccine, says Richt, China is particularly vulnerable.
RICHT: This is really big because it hits the biggest pig population in the world.
SCHMITZ: And the virus has been traveling fast. In early August, China recorded its first outbreak in the city of Shenyang in northeastern China. Scientists believe pigs there ate scraps with infected pork from nearby Russia. Less than two weeks later, pigs nearly a thousand miles away were infected. Then, two days later, 800 miles south of that in farmer Gao's city of Yueqing, another outbreak. Pan Chenjun, a senior agricultural analyst at Rabobank in Hong Kong, says the virus's spread will have a big impact on how pork is bought and sold in China.
PAN CHENJUN: Directly impact on pork is that China needs to maybe pay more to source enough pork from other countries.
SCHMITZ: And that, says Pan, will be tricky now that China's in a trade war with the United States and has imposed tariffs on imported American pork. Pan says China will likely turn to European pork suppliers instead.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIGS SNORTING)
SCHMITZ: Back on the pig farm in Zhejiang province, farmer Gao Yongfei is worried about China turning to pork from other countries.
GAO: (Through interpreter) Pork is an important part of the Chinese diet. It makes up two-thirds of our meat consumption. If we start importing pork, I won't make as much money.
SCHMITZ: But farmer Gao stands to do well for now. Pork prices in his part of China have increased 23 percent since the outbreak of African swine fever. The key, he says, is to keep his pigs healthy, something that will become more difficult to do as this virus spreads throughout China.
Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Zhejiang province.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.