An Exercise in Collaboration – What to Do if There was an African Swine Fever Epidemic in the U.S.

The African swine fever outbreak, currently ravaging China since August 2018 and spreading to other Asian countries, presents a considerable threat to a nation’s economy through the loss of its agricultural resources. Such an impact is currently being felt in China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Japan, North Korea, and most recently South Korea. This infectious disease is affecting not only pig farmers, but also farmers growing crops to feed the pig herds.

The African swine fever virus infects domestic and wild pigs, but it does not infect humans.  As it multiplies, the virus causes internal bleeding and results in almost 100% mortality of infected pigs. The U.S. pork industry produces $20 billion of meat annually, according to recent estimates from the U.S. Department of Commerce. If this disease made its way to the U.S., the results could be devastating.

Last year, the U.S Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) intensified vaccine research efforts in collaboration with the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) by creating an African Swine Fever Task Force, based out of the S&T Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) in New York state. The Task Force’s primary focus is on developing a vaccine and improving the diagnostics for African swine fever.

“The emergence of African swine fever has decimated the swine industry in China, but the effects will likely be felt worldwide,” said Dr. Larry Barrett, PIADC Director. “No outbreaks have been reported in the United States, but DHS, USDA, and the entire National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN) need to be prepared to fend off this intractable contagion.”

To prepare the United States for a domestic outbreak of African swine fever, S&T and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) recently conducted a tabletop exercise at PIADC centered on laboratory response preparedness. The most important part of the exercise was to see how different government and scientific entities collaborated to solve a major national problem – an African swine fever outbreak that could negatively affect the U.S. food supply and the economy.


The exercise was part of a four-day African swine fever training and exercise program hosted by S&T and the USDA Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (FADDL). Multiple federal, state, and scientific institutions participated in the course with representation from 32 different states. The event consisted of an Incident Command System (ICS) course designed for a hypothetical outbreak of African swine fever and focusing on laboratory-centric objectives, a robust tabletop exercise, and informative laboratory tours.

“Since FADDL is the vanguard of foreign animal disease protection, I thought it propitious for Plum Island to develop and host a multi-agency training and exercise event to bolster preparedness,” said Kevin Reilly, PIADC Programs Manager. “This was a one-of-a-kind event that left its participants feeling decidedly more prepared.”   

The tabletop exercise

The exercise simulated multiagency response efforts for the first 60 days of an African swine fever outbreak in multiple states. S&T and USDA wanted to observe and assess how lab communications performed during animal disease outbreaks and determine the efficacy of diagnostic strategies and surge response procedures to such incidents.

This emergency response exercise consisted of three modules: Initial Outbreak (days 1-3), Surge Response (days 4-24), and Ongoing Response (days 25-60). Each module began with a multimedia summary of key events from that time period, and then the participants reviewed the situation and discussed the appropriate response tactics. The participants practiced notification and communication strategies, deploying and recalling surge support staff, exploiting resource capabilities, processing samples, and prioritizing their efforts. Immediately after the exercise, participants discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the current incident response structure and lessons learned.

Potential impact

The event embodied the collaboration needed between federal, state, and academic partners to effectively respond to a foreign animal disease introduction.

“The emphasis of this particular exercise on the laboratory response was critical, and, I think, a unique perspective for such a large-scale tabletop,” said Dr. Jamie Barnabei, the Veterinary Medical Officer for the North American Foot and Mouth Vaccine Bank.

During the event, diagnostic and response experts from various states engaged in a hypothetical – but realistic – outbreak scenario and had the opportunity to test the necessary response protocols.

“In the event of an African swine fever outbreak, or other serious Foreign Animal Disease outbreak in the continental United States, the abilities of the NAHLN  Laboratories and PIADC to work together to effectively and efficiently provide testing to identify where the outbreak is and provide proof of negative disease status to impacted producers would be critical to disease eradication and the continuity of business,” said Dr. Leslie Cole, a USDA Veterinarian and Emergency Coordinator. “This unique interagency training provided decision makers from these organizations the opportunity to learn how to implement a common operational framework and allowed them to practice how they would organize and respond.”

All the agencies charged with animal disease outbreak preparedness have similar procedures and share common goals, but they seldom get to collaborate in person. This African swine fever training and exercise activity provided a unique opportunity for subject matter experts to meet each other and compare notes.

“Members of 32 NAHLN laboratories participated in training, demonstration and response exercises that will strengthen the ability of the U.S. animal diagnostics laboratories to be successful in addressing an incursion of African swine fever to this country, or any other diseases,” said Dr. Christina M. Loiacono, a veterinarian and the USDA’s NAHLN Coordinator.

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