EDITORIAL: Taiwan ignored again as virus looms

Sat, Sep 08, 2018 - Page 8

A virulent disease is threatening Asia’s pork industry, leading the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to call an emergency meeting this week in Bangkok to develop a coordinated regional response, but once again, Taiwanese authorities and farmers have been left out in the cold.

African swine fever, which is endemic to sub-

Saharan Africa, was first reported in China on Aug. 3 in Liaoning Province, and has since been reported in eight locations, some hundreds of kilometers apart, forcing officials to ban the transport of hogs from or through infected areas.

The strain causing the outbreaks in China is particularly virulent: It is almost always fatal and kills in two to 10 days by causing multiple organ and systems failures and internal bleeding. There is no vaccine or treatment; the only way to stop it is with mass cullings of infected animals.

The virus that causes the disease can also survive for months in pork products, animal feed and swill.

Now that the disease is in China, it is “here to stay” and will almost certainly reach other Asian nations, the FAO said yesterday.

If the virus reaches Taiwan, it could devastate the nation’s pork industry, which has spent the past two decades trying to recover from an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in March 1997 that placed the nation on the World Organization for Animal Health’s (OIE) list of areas affected by the disease and led to a ban on fresh pork exports.

The Council of Agriculture (COA) was hoping that by July next year it could apply to the OIE to be delisted, which requires that a nation be free of foot-and-mouth disease for one year after it stops the use of vaccines against the disease.

However, even though Taiwan faces an even greater threat to its hog and pork industry, it was not invited to the Bangkok meeting.

Taiwanese representatives were in the past able to take part in FAO-related meetings, such as its Committee on Fisheries, but in the past two years, China’s petulance has put an end to such efforts, just as it has blocked Taiwan from the annual World Health Assembly meetings.

Beijing’s pretense that it speaks for Taiwan in the WHO or other UN agencies, or is willing to help it, was first laid bare to the world with the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003, when it hindered efforts by Taiwanese authorities to gain access to samples of the SARS virus and pandemic information.

Efforts to combat the various strains of avian flu have been similarly blocked, and not just for Taiwan. While China provided samples of the virus from outbreaks there in 2013 and 2016 to researchers in other countries, it has reportedly refused requests from US and UK authorities for samples from the H7N9 strain responsible for last year’s outbreaks, even though as a signatory to a 2011 WHO agreement it is required to do so “in a timely manner.”

Taiwan has time and again proven itself to be a willing and able global partner in public and animal health, including sending samples of virus strains to research centers, despite being under no obligation to do so. Yet it must rely on the kindness of friendly governments willing to do an end-run around Beijing, such as the US did during SARS, to get information needed to protect its people and livestock.

It will likely have to do the same to get information on the African swine fever outbreak in China. In the meantime, the Customs Administration, the COA and other authorities will have to be more aggressive in their efforts to monitor imports to keep Taiwan free of the disease.