Nick Webb explores how the new strains of coronavirus have spread from mink farms, raising questions about the management of the fur industry
Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur
Coronavirus has dominated the news for the last 12 months. From the outbreak of Covid-19, through multiple global lockdowns, to the current spate of mutations; it has been (quite literally) everywhere. In November 2020, one of the first mutated strains of Covid-19 was discovered on a Danish mink farm.
Parts of Denmark was placed under a lockdown after 200 people were diagnosed with the new variant that was originally detected in the weasel-like animals which are bred for fur. The strain was discovered on a farm in the Jutland region, and was believed to have originated from infected workers passing the virus to the animals, which has “spilled back” into humans. While in the mink population, the virus mutated in the spite protein, which is where viruses are targeting.
The Non-Human Strain
The World Health Organisation has stated that mink act as a “reservoir” for the virus, passing it back and forth within their own population, with a risk of spill-over back to humans.
“If the mutation is on a specific protein that is being currently targeted by the vaccine developers to trigger an immune response in humans then it means that if this new virus strain comes out of the mink back into the humans, even with vaccination, the humans will start spreading it and the vaccine will not protect.” - Dr Marisa Peyre, epidemiologist from Cirad
Millions of mink were culled in an attempt to slow the spread of the mutation; however, due to the rushed nature of the cull, thousands of the animals were buried in shallow graves, only to then be pushed out of the ground again as gasses forced the soil to move. Images of the “zombie mink” re-emerging led to concerns of contamination of both ground water and local lakes and reservoirs used as drinking water supplies.
Over 50 million mink are bred worldwide annually for their fur, with the largest farmers being China, Denmark, The Netherlands and Poland. The WHO announced that so far six countries have found the virus in farmed minks. It is believed that other domestic animals could be susceptible to the virus, and Professor Joanne Santini from University College, London suggested that “mink is the extreme but it could be happening out there and we just don’t know about it and that’s something we need to be checking”.
World Health Organisation Response
The WHO have called on countries to step up surveillance and security measures in order to reduce risks of further infection. Scientists from Denmark, China and Malaysia have published a letter in Science saying that it is urgent to “monitor, restrict, and – where possible – ban mink production”. It is now believed that the mink strain of Covid-19 has died out, with no new cases of the titled “cluster 5” being found for a few months.
That being said, there has recently been a spate of new, and more virulent strains of the virus, making it more important than ever to maintain security measures around animals and keep following guidelines to reduce the infection spreading through any species.
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