African swine fever (ASF) is a highly contagious and deadly viral disease affecting both domestic and wild pigs of all ages. It is found in countries around the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. More recently, it has spread through China, Mongolia, Vietnam, and North Korea as well as within parts of the European Union.
ASF is not a threat to human health and cannot be transmitted from pigs to humans. But the economic consequences from a spread of this disease are potentially devastating. Some viral strains of ASF cause near-100-percent mortality in swine. And, because there is no vaccine, the only solution once the virus is in a farm’s pigs, all animals are euthanized. In addition, ASF outbreaks result in trade restrictions and significant economic losses globally.
ASF has never been found in the United States – and we want to keep it that way. So, Agricultural Research Service Scientists (ARS) at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in Orient Point, NY, are developing a vaccine using gene editing.
Gene editing is a new type of genetic engineering where DNA can be directly inserted, deleted, modified, or replaced in the genome of a living organism like the ASF virus. Unlike early genetic engineering techniques, gene editing directs the modification to specific sites. In this case, ARS scientists used the technique to delete a gene from the virus and to create an effective vaccine to protect against the African Swine Fever. It is the only vaccine against the disease world today.
In this 2:46 video, the scientists who created the vaccine explain their work. You’lll notice that it starts with one of them headed to work on a boat. The reason for this unusual commute is that, as the name suggests, the USDA’s Plum Island Animal Disease Center is located on an island. Its location and the restrictions surrounding it help ensure that the diseases and pathogens they study don’t spread to the mainland.
This USDA web page provides additional information and resources on African Swine Fever.