Chinese scientists discover clues to swine fever virus

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A staff member cleans a pigsty at Jinchuan pig farm of Jiangxi Zhengbang breeding Co. Ltd. in Xingan County, east China's Jiangxi Province, Sept. 19, 2019. (Peng Jianxin/Handout via Xinhua)

Chinese scientists have detailed the structure of the African swine fever virus, which causes a fatal and highly contagious pig disease that has decimated hog herds across the world.

The latest discovery will offer clues into how the virus attacks host cells while evading the immune system in infected pigs, and inform future research into developing an effective vaccine, scientists said on Friday.

The ball-shaped virus, first encountered in Kenya in the 1920s, has five layers that contain over 30,000 protein subunits, according to a research team formed by scientists from the Institute of Biophysics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

At 260 to 300 nanometers in diameter, it is the largest virus ever discovered by Chinese scientists, equivalent to 140 times the size of the Zika virus and 760 times the size of the hepatitis A virus, according to Wang Xiangxi, one of the lead scientists behind the discovery.

To unravel its complex and giant structure, the research team devoted four months to collecting more than 100 terabytes of data using the cryo-electron microscopy technique that allows researchers to see molecules in detail, he said.

Rao Zihe, an academician of the CAS who also heads the research team, said the latest discovery is just an initial step in a long march to battle the disease as it continues to threaten the global pork industry.

"More research will be devoted to how the virus interacts with host cells and possible mutation routes," he said.

This year, 26 countries and regions have reported outbreaks of African swine fever, leading to heavy losses of pig herds in these regions, especially in China and Vietnam.

Since China, the world's largest pork producer, detected its first outbreak last August in the northeastern province of Liaoning, the country has reported 157 such cases as of Wednesday, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

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