Fur farming to end in The Netherlands by 2024
WAGENINGEN, The Netherlands––The discovery that ranched mink can become infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus may lend momentum to the Dutch national plan to phase out mink farming entirely by 2024.
Concern that mink themselves might become a COVID-19 reservoir may also dampen Chinese enthusiasm for rebuilding a mink ranching industry that for several years now has been in steep decline.
The association of COVID-19 with mink could even add to decades of increasing consumer skittishness about “That touch of mink,” the title of a 1962 film starring Doris Day and Cary Grant that probably did more to promote the fur fashion industry than the Doris Day Animal League, long ago subsumed into the Humane Society of the U.S., ever did to oppose it.
From bats to mink to humans?
More significantly, the finding that ranched mink are vulnerable to COVID-19 hints that mink might be potential COVID-19 carriers too, and might therefore have had a role in the disease making the jump from bats to humans.
Some western media reported that mink were sold for human consumption at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, where the global COVID-19 pandemic is believed to have begun, but Chinese media have reported that mink are inedible.
Dutch minister of agriculture, nature & food quality Carola Schouten revealed that COVID-19 had been found among mink on May 8, 2020.
The Wageningen University bioveterinary research laboratory confirmed the infections.
Infected workers infected mink
Elaborated the laboratory web site, “On April 26, 2020, it emerged that mink on two mink farms in the province of Brabant,” along the Belgian border and also bordering Germany, “had contracted COVID-19. On May 7, 2020, two other mink farms in the province of Brabant were found to be infected.
“Some employees at the mink farms have had symptoms of COVID-19,” the web site explained. It appears that the virus was introduced to the mink via these employees.”
The farms, each believed to house about 10,000 mink, are located in the closely clustered villages of Milheeze, De Mortel [a suburb of Gemert-Bakel], and Deurne, about 30 miles north of Belgium, 20 miles west of Germany. One of the two mink farms in Milheeze shared ownership and personnel with the one in De Mortel, but the farm in Deurne “has no connection with the previous infections,” the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature & Food Quality said in a media release.
Four farms, mink, & mink poop under quarantine
“No virus was found in the air samples outside the mink barns,” the media release continued. “However, the virus has been found in the immediate vicinity of mink on dust particles within the barns. It is still unknown whether people can become infected with COVID-19 through these dust particles.
“On the basis of advice from the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health & the Environment,” the media release continued, “the mayors of Gemert-Bakel and Deurne will close the public road [within a quarter mile radius of the barns] to pedestrians and cyclists.”
All four farms, and the animals and their excrement, were placed under quarantine.
Said Schouten, “It is unlikely that only human-to-mink transmission has taken place on the farms. The characteristics of the virus indicate transmission between minks.”
“Unique opportunity for study”
Continued the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature & Food Quality media release, “Investigation shows that the virus had been on the company sites for several weeks. It appears that the infection can lead to pneumonia and death among mink, but the percentage of sick animals and the death rate is limited. The disease mainly affects animals in advanced pregnancy.”
Observed Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases [ProMED] animal disease and zoonoses moderator Arnon Shimshony, “The COVID-19 outbreak in the Dutch mink farms and its spread provide a unique opportunity to study the emerging disease and its dynamics in a susceptible animal population. Various pending issues may profit from the knowledge gathered, such as the expected establishment of eventual herd immunity.
“Collected epidemiological statistics, clinical observations and pathological changes recorded on the mink farms, even preliminary ones, will be helpful,” Shimshony added.
“So far,” Shimshony noted, “there is no information about COVID-19 affecting minks in China, which harbors the world’s leading mink industry.”
China & the Netherlands both among top mink producers
True as of 2015, when Chinese farms reportedly pelted more than 40 million mink, this information appears to be somewhat outdated, since Chinese mink output has reportedly fallen since then to about seven million pelts per year––barely more than the six million pelts produced in recent years by the 140 mink farms remaining in the Netherlands, down from about 160 farms in 2015.
The Netherlands remains the fourth largest mink pelt producing nation, albeit far behind Denmark and Russia. The U.S. is a distant fifth.
Danish mink pelt production reportedly fell from 17 million to 12 million over the past three years, but Denmark is currently the global leader in mink farming––and the southern Danish border happens to be barely 100 miles from the northeastern border of the Netherlands, albeit with a strip of Germany between them.
Thus any infectious disease developments in either Denmark or the Netherlands, involving any species, usually spreads rapidly from one to the other.
“Bat & mink may be candidate reservoirs”
Shimshony meanwhile mentioned a not-yet-peer-reviewed paper “authored by a team of researchers from Beijing University, addressing mink as a potential SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19] reservoir,” posted to a university web site on January 25, 2020.
“Infectivity pattern analysis illustrates that bat and mink may be two candidate reservoirs” for COVID-19,” suggested the paper, entitled “Host and infectivity prediction of Wuhan 2019 novel coronavirus using deep learning algorithm,” co-authored by scientists Qian Guo, Mo Li, Chunhui Wang, Peihong Wang, Zhencheng Fang, Jie tan, Shufang Wu, and Yonghong Xiao.
The Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature & Food Quality media release and Shimshony’s observations soon brought additional perspective from other Program for Monitoring Emerging Disease participants.
“It would in my opinion be very surprising if other mink farms in large mink-producing countries, such as northern Europe, North America and China, are not also affected,” posted Soren Alexandersen, director of the Geelong Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Deakin University School of Medicine in Victoria state, Australia.
“Mink are kept at large farms and transmission of such infections takes place very efficiently from cage to cage,” Alexandersen pointed out. “Mink breed only once a year, young mink kits being born in late April/early May, i.e. right around now. Consequently, commercial mink farms will have a very large number of mink on their farms, as each female will now have around five mink kits.
“A serious risk scenario”
“Considering that the mink were likely initially infected by people, followed likely by significant mink-to-mink spread,” Alexandersen suggested, “one would believe that the risk of transmitting [COVID-19] back to people would be high.”
Agreed ProMED zoonotic disease moderator Pablo Beldomenico, “High densities of a species that has proven to be permissive to SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19] replication are indeed a serious risk scenario.”
The Wageningen University bioveterinary research laboratory web site somewhat contradicted both agriculture minister Schouten and the prediction of the Beijing University team, as well as Alexandersen and Beldomenico, reporting that “Only a few mink showed symptoms of the disease. The mink are kept in separate pens, which means that there is little to no contact between the animals.
“It appears to be an acute outbreak,” the laboratory web site said, “where the farms quickly overcome the peak of the disease. The chance that mink will function as a reservoir of the virus appears to be small.
“Mortality rate higher than usual”
“The infected mink suffered from gastrointestinal complaints and respiratory problems. The mortality rate at the affected farms was also higher than usual,” the Wageningen University bioveterinary research laboratory web site acknowledged.
And the Wageningen University researchers did recognize cause for concern.
“Mustelids such as mink are extra sensitive to coronaviruses,” the site explained. “Like humans, they have a protein on their lungs, the ACE2 receptor, to which the virus likes to attach itself. Humans also have this coronavirus binder on the mucous membranes of their mouths. This protein appears to be a good predictor for possible infection with COVID-19.”
Dutch began mink farming phase-out in 2013
A succession of Dutch governments have been trying to phase out fur farming completely for more than 25 years. Fox farming was banned in the Netherlands in 1995 and chinchilla farming in 1997. Both bans took effect in 2008.
Mink farming was banned in 2013, with an 11-year grace period allowed for mink farmers to recover their investments and leave the industry.
Ruling on behalf of the Dutch Federation of Fur Holders, the District Court of The Hague in May 2014 overturned the mink farming ban, but the verdict was reversed and the ban reinstated by the National Court of Appeals in November 2015.
But fur farming may rebound in China
China, however, “is considering moves that would entrench its vast fur industry further into the country’s economy, raising worries over the spread of coronavirus among animals crowded together in small spaces,” the Independent reported on May 10, 2020.
“The country’s agriculture ministry is proposing to reclassify mink, raccoon dogs [tanuki], silver foxes and blue foxes as domestic livestock, rather than wild animals, which they are now,” the Independent explained.
This would be consistent with the classification of these species in the U.S., Canada, and other fur-producing nations.
Responded Teresa Telecky, vice president for wildlife with Humane Society International, a subsidiary of the Humane Society of the U.S., “Rebranding wildlife as livestock doesn’t alter the fact that there are insurmountable challenges to keeping these species in commercial captive breeding environments, and that their welfare needs simply cannot be met.”
“One more compelling reason” to end the fur industry
Added Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block, promoted to that position from heading Humane Society International in 2018, “Now, with mink on fur farms in the Netherlands testing positive for the coronavirus, we have one more compelling reason why this brutal trade needs to end for good.”
The Netherlands has so far had 5,562 human COVID-19 deaths, 1,000 more than China, and ranks ninth in the world in total deaths, seventh in death rate, at 325 deaths per million residents.
Denmark has had 533 human COVID-19 deaths, for a rate of 92 per million residents.
Both are far behind the U.S., with 85,197 human COVID-19 deaths at this writing, a rate of 257 deaths per million residents.