Is a new coronavirus already here?

Smithfield Foods, the nation’s largest pork producer, closed its Sioux Falls, SD, slaughterhouse after many Smithfield employees grew sick. Tyson Foods closed its Columbus Junction, IA pork slaughterhouse in April, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While many U.S. slaughterhouses are closing, pork slaughterhouses and pork producers are bracing for another coronavirus challenge: a virus called Severe Acute Diarrhea Syndrome or SADS-CoV that also originated in China and targets pigs. Like SARS, MERS, and COVID-19, SADS-CoV is bat-originated and hosted by an eaten animal.

Two years ago, SADS-CoV was identified by Chinese and U.S. researchers as it was triggering die-offs in piglets on Chinese farms in Guangdong province. In 2018, SADS-CoV had already killed 24,693 piglets on four Chinese farms.

While seldom covered as a news story, the U.S. pork industry has been working toward a test for the underreported SADS-CoV.

According to Farm Journal Ag Web:

In 2018, Swine acute diarrhea syndrome coronavirus (SADS-CoV), related to the bat coronavirus HKU2, was associated with severe outbreaks of diarrhea with high mortality rates in pigs in China. Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) and porcine delta coronavirus (PDCoV) are closely related to SADS-CoV, according to the Swine Health Information Center (SHIC) newsletter.

Following devastating outbreaks of PEDV and PDCoV in the U.S., the swine industry was concerned with a potential outbreak of SADS-CoV. If SADS-CoV were to enter the U.S. the industry needs to be prepared to implement control strategies to mitigate the disease’s impact on pork producers, the article says. To do so, SHIC is supporting the development of rapid diagnostic tools for timely detection of SADS-CoV nucleic acid and/or antigens in clinical samples.

The previous U.S. PEDV epidemic was hidden from the public

Porcine epidemic diarrhea or PEDV, which devastated U.S. pork producers pigs in 2013 and 2014, was largely missed by food consumers and the public, reported National Geographic, but it killed at least 7 million pigs U.S.

According to GenomeWeb, the closely related SADS-CoV “causes severe and acute diarrhea and vomiting among piglets, leading to their deaths due to rapid weight loss within days. Infected piglets five or fewer days old had a mortality rate of 90 percent, while older piglets had better outcomes.”

PEDV also invaded Italy, where it circulated as a recombinant strain, reported emerging infectious diseases. It is likely that PEDV, widely seen as similar to SADS-CoV, had “been circulating in Italy and likely throughout Europe for multiple years but… underestimated as a mild form of diarrhea,” reports the journal.

Can the pig-hosted SADS-CoV jump to humans?

In 2018, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy reported that pork workers exposed to pigs with SADS-CoV had not caught the virus. Yet Dr. Paul Sundberg, executive director of the Swine Health Information Center, told National Hog Farmer coronaviruses can and do mutate quickly.

“They can jump from species to species, and certainly that’s been the U.S. pork experience with coronaviruses,” he says. “TGE [transmissible gastroenteritis virus] is a coronavirus. Then in 2013, we got PEDV [porcine epidemic diarrhea virus], which is another one, and deltacorona virus is the third. There’s another coronavirus in China right now, called Severe Acute Diarrhea Syndrome or SADS-CoV, that we are watching and developing a diagnostic test, to make sure that we can find it should it get here.”

Certainly, SARS, originated in bats but hosted by civet cats and MERS originated in bats but hosted by dromedaries, put no pork producers’ at ease about SADS-CoV.

Will SADS-CoV become another surprise epidemic?

Many in the U.S. blame lawmakers, the administration, and even the media for not acknowledging the COVID-19 virus earlier and preparing for its pandemic.

The same scenario may be occurring with SADS-CoV. While the scientific press and the pork industry have reported on SADS-CoV, major news outlets have not. Yet with what we know about novel virus recombination and with pork slaughterhouses becoming new disease hot spots, SADS-CoV must be acknowledged and studied.

Martha Rosenberg is a health reporter and the author of Born With a Junk Food Deficiency.  

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