‘Ebola Plant Virus’ First Cases Confirmed in China Tomatoes

August 30, 2019 Updated: August 30, 2019

Virologists just confirmed the first cases of tomato brown rugose fruit virus, known as the “Ebola plant virus,” in three greenhouses in China’s Shandong Province.

With China farmers expecting African swine fever to kill half the nation’s pigs and Fall Armyworm to munch through about 2 million hectares of corn and grain crops, tomato brown rugose fruit virus (ToBRFV) now threatens the world’s largest tomato producer.

China accounted for 31 percent of the 170.8 million tons of tomatoes harvested in 2017; about 3 times the volume of number 2 tomato producer India, and 4 times the volume of number 3 tomato producer the United States. China’s production has risen at about 3 percent per year because the income per hectare for peasant farmers in 2017 reached more than 149,989 yuan ($21,820).

As one of its most important agricultural crops, China accounted for a third of global tomato sauce exports in 2017. Key markets including Russia, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and other neighboring countries generated a revenue of $900 million.

But all that success for prospering farmers is now threatened as ToBRFV symptoms were found in the leaves of 50 percent of the plants in three tomato greenhouses in Yucheng, Shandong Province, China. Infected tomato plants quickly developed leaf lesions, and within 10 days the plants collapsed.

ToBRFV was first discovered in Jordan in 2015. Over the next twelve months, it spread to Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Germany. It spread to Italy, Chile, Ethiopia, Sudan, Thailand, Peru and the Netherlands in 2018. In 2019, it was widespread in Mexican greenhouses and the USDA confirmed two cases in California’s central coast.

According to a report by Bob Gilbertson and Zach Bagley of the California Tomato Research Institute, ToBRFV represents a new species of a well-known group of plant viruses, called tobamoviruses. Highly virulent and able to override existing plant genetic controls to spread rapidly, it represents a major worldwide production concern because there are no tomato varieties with a resistant gene to protect the plants from infection.

Available data suggests that ToBRFV is primarily a threat to greenhouse production. This is expected to be a major concern in northern China, because the provincial governments have adopted greenhouse subsidy policies to encourage more plantings.

Pathologist Gilbertson warned: “We’re calling this one the Ebola of plant viruses” because the virus is transmitted mechanically by a farmer’s machines, tools and human touch. ToBRFV is also “extremely stable and can survive in dry tissue for years.”

Gilbertson is recommending more crop inspection vigilance and intense greenhouse sanitation after the end of each growing season: “Remove all the plants and spray down the inside of the house … all the benches, strings, ropes, tools, everything.”

The Plant Journal stated that how ToBRFV was introduced into China is unknown, because Asian ToBRFV has been transmitted by seeds, bumblebees and human activities in the field. As of early July, there are no Asian tomato strains resistant to the virus.

Chriss Street is an expert in macroeconomics, technology, and national security. He has served as CEO of several companies and is an active writer with more than 1,500 publications. He also regularly provides strategy lectures to graduate students at top Southern California universities.