The Pirbright Institute, based in Surrey, is working with Belgian biotechnology company ViroVet to develop the first antiviral drugs to control African swine fever (ASF). The research is funded through a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) LINK programme.

ASF is endemic across Eastern Europe and China, where it is causing serious damage to the Chinese pig sector and has recently appeared in Vietnam and Cambodia. There have been isolated cases in western Europe, so there is a risk to the UK pig industry.

Pirbright says commercial vaccines to prevent ASF are several years away. Therefore, the development of alternative control methods is of critical global importance. Antiviral drugs could help to limit clinical signs in pigs and lower virus replication, in turn reducing the spread of disease, containing outbreaks and ultimately reducing the number of pigs lost to the viral infection.

Early work has shown a 90% reduction rate in viral replication. Further tests at Pirbright’s high containment facilities will explore their efficacy at preventing 14 different types of ASF virus from replicating in pig macrophage immune cells which the virus usually targets.

“The unique experience of ViroVet makes it the ideal company to partner with,” says Dr Linda Dixon who leads the ASF Group at Pirbright. “The results from this study will help us understand more about how the virus infects pigs and will help to inform our vaccine development research. Without a viable vaccine, ASF is incredibly difficult to control owing to its ability to be spread by wild boar and through the consumption of contaminated pork and other products by pigs.

“Having a tool which could lower the risk of further transmission once pigs have been infected would go a long way in preventing the rapid spread of this disease.”