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Australia Searches for African Swine Fever Vaccine

FILE - Mark Schipp, the President of World Organization for Animal Health briefs media in Sydney, Oct. 31, 2019, on the threat of African swine fever.

Australian scientists say it could be another five years before a vaccine is developed to protect pigs from African swine fever. It is estimated that a quarter of the world's pig population has died this year, following the deadly outbreak of the virus in China.

African swine fever, or ASF, has yet to reach Australia, but it is close. The virus has been spreading rapidly through Asia, and outbreaks have been reported in East Timor, one of Australia’s closest neighbors.

The disease is devastating pig populations in several countries. It is highly contagious and there is no cure.

Scientists have been working on a vaccine for 60 years, but because the African swine fever virus is so large and complex it is an immense task.

At the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in the state of Victoria researchers are hopeful of a breakthrough, but concede an effective treatment for ASF could be at least five years away.

The laboratory’s director is Dr Trevor Drew.

“I do not think I really expected African swine fever to spread with such ferocity," said Drew. "I think we will not be able to control African swine fever until there is a vaccine available.”

Without a vaccine, Australia will rely on traditional methods of disease control should ASF reach its shores. Infected pigs would be culled, their carcasses buried and farms disinfected.

Australia’s multi-million dollar pork industry includes about 2,700 producers, which employ 34,000 people.

There are concerns the disease could spread through Australia's large feral pig population. It numbers about 25 million, and the animals are spread across almost half the country.

Scientists say the most likely way ASF could enter Australia is through infected pork products that are then fed to pigs.

Under new bio-security laws, Australia is deporting tourists who fail to declare illegal pork products.