Are Floating Pigs Behind China’s Avian Flu?

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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News that a new form of deadly bird flu recently killed two Shanghai residents arrived in the morning’s papers, along with some expert suggestions on how to avoid catching the unwelcome disease.

“Wash your hands, and cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing,” was the advice published in the Oriental Morning Post, Shanghai’s most popular newspaper (and repeated in others). “And avoid eating or contact with dead and diseased livestock.”

That last directive might be a little tricky to fulfill. Since early March, Shanghai’s waterways have been clogged by dead pigs -- officially at least 11,000 of them but likely a lot more. Many of those pigs have found their way into tributaries that feed directly into the municipal water supply. Thus, in theory, every Shanghai resident who comes into contact with the city’s water is potentially compromised.

Or are they? So far, at least, nobody from any level of government -- local to national -- has revealed what, precisely, may have caused a massive pork die-off so close to the city of Shanghai. Was it a virus? Or perhaps a play for livestock insurance? Both rumors (and others) have been floated in Chinese social and traditional media, but without official confirmation.

The reason for the mass water burial, however, is a different matter. According to numerous reports in Chinese and foreign media (though also without government confirmation), the immediate cause appears to be a government crackdown on the well-established, highly lucrative and totally disgusting underground trade in dead and diseased pigs for human consumption.

For Shanghai, a town whose cuisine is largely built on pork, this news would be unsettling under any circumstance. But in light of a bird flu that even Communist Party newspapers are implying could be caused by contact with dead and diseased livestock, it’s reason for panic. And, sure enough, Chinese social media were quickly filled with speculation on whether the month-long dead pork tide had played any role in this emerging strain of flu. Adding to the sense of unease was the late-arriving information that the younger of Shanghai’s two bird flu victims was a 27-year-old pork trader.

So far, nobody knows just how the young pork merchant contracted the flu (the World Health Organization says that human-to-human transmission is highly unlikely). The H7 types of virus, to which the newly emerged strain belongs, generally infect humans through birds, not pigs. Thus it would behoove the Shanghai government -- or whoever is in charge of the response to the outbreak -- to test some of the pig carcasses recovered from the Huangpu river for the H7N7 strain that caused the two human deaths, and disclose the results to an increasingly edgy Chinese public.

To be sure, even a positive result wouldn’t prove the source of the new outbreak. But it would indicate that China’s public health authorities are willing to exhibit some well-needed transparency during a public health crisis with potentially global consequences.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Adam Minter at

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