Pigfestation Threatens to Spoil Party for China's New Leader

Retrieving a pig from the Huangpu River in Shanghai on Monday, March 11 Photograph by Tang Yanjun/ColorChinaPhoto via AP Photo

Never mind the dead pigs, drink the water. That seems to be the message from the Shanghai government on Tuesday, after thousands of hog and piglet carcasses floated into town in the Huangpu River, a source of the city’s drinking water. The swine started floating to town late last week and their volume increased over the weekend. Now the Shanghai government says it has removed most of the carcasses from the river and says water from a section of the river is once again clean and safe to drink.

There’s never a good time for about 3,000 dead pigs to float into a country’s financial hub, but the timing of this flotilla is especially bad for the Chinese government. Beijing is hosting the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, an event that is the final part of the transition of power from outgoing President Hu Jintao’s team to the country’s new leadership, led by new President Xi Jinping. Pictures of water-soaked carcasses threaten to spoil the debut.

What’s behind Shanghai’s pigfestation? Chinese media say the carcasses come from upstream farms, where a large number of pigs died in January and February. While the official Xinhua news agency said on Tuesday that there has been “no mass swine epidemic” in the area, authorities have identified the cause of death for at least some of the animals as an outbreak of porcine circovirus, the Shanghai Daily reported on Monday, citing the city’s agricultural commission.

The virus is common among pigs in China, the newspaper added, but “is not a zoonosis and will not infect humans.” (A zoonosis is “any disease or infection that is naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans or vice-versa,” says the World Health Organization’s website says.

Shanghai’s pig crisis comes during the 10th anniversary of the SARS outbreak, which originated in China and spread worldwide after inept attempts by Chinese officials to obscure the extent of the problem. Having lived through the SARS panic in Hong Kong, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something Chinese officials aren’t telling us about this new outbreak.

Ben Cowling, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, says I shouldn’t be too concerned about danger from the illness that afflicts China’s pigs. “We know that there are many different animal viruses all around the world, and most of them do not pose a risk to humans,” says Cowling, an associate professor at the university’s School of Public Health. “So there’s no reason to be particularly worried about this new virus in China at this stage.”

When it comes to identifying potential threats to public health, China has made considerable progress in the 10 years since the SARS outbreak, he adds. That means officials will be able to know quickly if the virus killing China’s pigs—or other viruses affecting animals in China—jump to humans. “The surveillance for people with severe illness is getting better and better every year in China,” says Cowling. “In the event of some human infection with a new virus, hospitals would be able to identify that there is a new virus.”

Ten years ago, a major problem was China’s initial unwillingness to admit to the size of its SARS problem. Even as Chinese were getting sick with the virus, the state-controlled media at first didn’t report on the epidemic. With the Chinese media now more aggressive in reporting news that might make officials uncomfortable, a cover up would be harder to pull off. That’s further reason to be hopeful that the dead pigs floating into Shanghai this week aren’t the first wave of a very dangerous problem.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.