By Nigel Hunt
LONDON (Reuters) - There are fears that a virus that has killed millions of piglets in North America and sent retail pork prices to record highs could reach Europe in the coming months, and little has been done to try to prevent its arrival, industry sources said.
Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDv) has killed around 7 million young pigs since first being identified in the United States almost a year ago.
The virus attacks the gut of piglets, preventing them from absorbing fluids and leading to death by dehydration. Older pigs normally survive.
"We are just watching with horror how it is rampaging across America, and no-one in Europe seems to be the least bit interested," said Zoe Davies, general manager of Britain's National Pig Association.
The virus can spread through fecal matter, and U.S. experts say tiny amounts can infect huge numbers of animals - a tablespoon of PEDv-infected manure is enough to infect the entire 66 million-head U.S. hog herd, they estimate.
There is also evidence that feed products may play a role, particularly those made from pig blood.
Blood products such as pig plasma are commonly used in post-weaning piglet diets around the world, including in Europe.
"Some protein-rich by-products, such as dried blood, are incorporated in feed products. This can go in the feed of other pigs, spreading the disease," said Bernard Vallat, director general of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), adding thermal treatment of these products could kill the virus.
Some believe the deadly strain originated in China and has already traveled thousands of miles to North America, though how it achieved this remains unclear.
It is nearly identical to one that infected pigs in China's Anhui province, according to a report published in the American Society of Microbiology journal mBio.
"We find genetic similarities between the two, but we did not trace the virus between China and the United States," OIE's Vallat said.
Spain has the largest breeding herd in Europe, while Germany is the top pork producer.
"We are monitoring the PEDv situation in the United States and other countries with concern," said Klemens Schulz, spokesman for German pig producers' association ZDS.
"It is a little surprising that it is not much of a theme (in Europe), considering the impact it has had there."
The virus is not transmissible to humans and there are no food-safety concerns, but there could be substantial financial costs for countries where the virus strikes.
The foot-and-mouth outbreak in Britain in 2001, for example, led to the slaughter of more than 10 million sheep and cattle in a bid to stop the disease spreading and cost the country about 8 billion pounds ($13.5 billion), with tourism among the sectors hit.
Frederic Vincent, a spokesman for the European Commission, said there were no harmonized measures in place in the EU against the virus, adding it was discussed in a meeting with experts from member states two weeks ago.
"The Commission is following closely, together with Member States, the situation with a view to update the risk assessment," he added.
A milder strain of PEDv was identified in Europe in the early 1970s but did not lead to widespread problems and slowly disappeared from herds as immunity developed.
"It has obviously mutated and become more voracious. Effectively, our herd is naive (has no immunity) if we get it," NPA's Davies said.
A spokesman for the European Animal Protein Association said its members were testing their blood products, but all results had been negative so far, adding only blood from EU pigs was being used to produce feed sold in Europe.
"There are no imports," he said.
NPA's Davies said improved biosecurity measures were vital, with evidence that some trucks that had arrived virus-free at abattoirs in the United States left carrying the virus.
"We have been doing a lot of work in the UK on truck washes at abattoirs and trying to ensure they are as effective as they can be," she said.
If it does arrive in Europe, it is likely to spread quickly across a continent where many piglets are born in one country and slaughtered in another.
"Germany, unfortunately, has a high risk level as we are a transit land for pig transport and we import large numbers of live piglets from the Netherlands and Denmark," German pig producers' association spokesman Schulz said.
OIE's Vallat, however, was confident its spread to Europe was preventable.
"By reinforcing measures on everything that goes into farms, including feed, we can protect them from viruses, including this new one. We are not facing a totally new situation. We know how to protect farms," he said.
"We need to create a bubble and that everything that goes in and out of it be sterilized."
($1 = 0.5922 British Pounds)
(Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis in Brussels, Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris and Michael Hogan in Hamburg; Editing by Veronica Brown and Will Waterman)