Danish mink industry was to be liquidated from fear that COVID-19 mutation could neutralize vaccines in development
COPENHAGEN, Denmark––The Danish mink industry, on the verge of liquidation as of November 4, 2020 to control a COVID-19 coronavirus mutation, appears to have politically mobilized to win a reprieve––for the mink ranchers, however, not the mink themselves, who continue to be gassed for their pelts as usual after growing their winter coats.
“According to local press, an assessment from the Statens Serum Institut,” the Danish government virology laboratory, “has opened up the possibility to keep a small core of 56,000 breeding mink surviving under severe epidemiologically prescribed maintenance conditions,” the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases [ProMED] announced late on November 12, 2020.
Ironically, the world seemed to be awakening to the full horror of mink ranching only as the industry appeared to be ending in nation after nation with the same sort of massacre that always ended the growing season, preceding pelting to send the small animals’ skins to the fur apparel trade.
Culling order rolled back
The difference in 2020 is that far fewer mink are being killed than in most past years, because mink ranching has already contracted to less than half of what it was at peak, when more than twice as many mink coats and other mink garments were sold worldwide.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen on November 4, 2020 announced that Denmark would follow the Netherlands, Poland, and France in liquidating mink ranching, due to growing fear that mink may be a reservoir for even deadlier variants of the COVID-19 coronavirus than those that have already killed more than 1.3million people worldwide, infecting nearly 53 million since December 2019.
The Frederiksen order was at least temporarily rolled back, however, on November 9, 2020, when Danish mink farmers objected that the government did not have the authority to order that mink should be culled on farms with no history of COVID-19 infection. The Danish parliament subsequently balked at passing legislation to enable the complete cull that Frederiksen had initially ordered.
The Frederiksen order was then restated as a “recommendation,” which has no force of law. The plan to keep 56,000 breeding mink came three days after that.
“Denmark will cull all farmed mink”
Initially, “Denmark [planned to] cull all farmed mink in the country, to prevent the spread of coronavirus infection, both between the animals and to their human handlers,” summarized Live Science staff writer Nicoletta Lanese.
Denmark has in recent years produced between 28% and 40% of the global mink pelt supply, about 60 million in 2018, as the mink industry in other nations––especially China––has downsized in response to declining consumer demand for fur.
The decision to liquidate the Danish mink ranch inventory came with about 17 million mink kept on 1,139 farms in Denmark, cumulatively employing about 4,000 workers.
At least 255 Danish mink farms were reportedly known to have been infected, chiefly in Jutland, the mainland part of the smallest of the Scandinavian nations. Twelve Jutlanders had contracted mutated strains of COVID-19 from mink since the end of summer 2020.
Infected mink farmers “spread it to nearly 400 others”
“Those people then spread it to nearly 400 others through human-to-human contagion,” reported Barbie Latza Nadeau for the Daily Beast. “Denmark’s State Serum Institute reported that 214 of those had been recorded with ‘mink-related versions’ of COVID-19.”
“While the virus spread among these mink, it picked up new genetic mutations,” Lanese explained. “Danish authorities expressed concern that, should the mutated virus spread among humans, the COVID-19 vaccines currently in development may not work as well against the new variant.
Research by the State Serum Institute suggests that, in infected people, the mutated virus shows “reduced susceptibility to antibodies,” prime minister Frederiksen told media and the public.
“This concern has now become real”
Elaborated the State Serum Institute, of Copenhagen, a day later via the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED), “SSI has for a long time expressed concern about the mutations that occur in the spike protein” characterizing COVID-19. “However, concerns that there may be decreased susceptibility to antibodies from vaccines were of a theoretical nature.
“This concern has now become real,” the State Serum Institute said, after assessing test results obtained on November 2, 2020.
The State Serum Institute “estimated that continued mink breeding would entail a significant risk of recurrence of a large spread of infection among mink and humans,” the institute continued. “SSI estimated that this would pose a major risk to public health,” because “a large virus reservoir in mink increases the risk of new virus mutations occurring again, which vaccines may not provide optimal protection against. Overall, the immunity gained through vaccination or past infection may also be at risk of being weakened or absent.
“Mink breeding entails a significant risk to public health”
“The overall conclusion, which was also supported by the Danish Health & Medicines Authority, the State Serum Institute said, “was therefore that continued mink breeding entails a significant risk to public health. This includes the possibilities for optimally preventing COVID-19 with vaccines.”
State Serum Institute chief Kare Molbak warned of a potential “worst-case scenario” in which a mutated COVID-19 strain might create “a new pandemic, starting all over again out of Denmark,” not noted for posing an existential threat to neighbors since the Viking raids of more than 1,000 years ago.
The decision to terminate mink ranching, at estimated cost of $785 million to Danish ranchers, “angered fur producers who say the mink are actually being scapegoated to pacify nervous health officials and conspiracy theorists, and that the government is using the pandemic to destroy the controversial industry,” wrote Daily Beast reporter Nadeau.
“There is a good rationale for closing mink farms”
Nadeau cited as critics of the liquidation University of College London Genetics Institute professor Francois Balloux, University of Washington evolutionary biologist Carl Bergstrom, and Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen.
Others on record included Cambridge University head of veterinary medicine James Wood and University of Reading virologist Ian Jones.
But Balloux, in particular, was not actually supportive of the mink ranchers.
“There is a good rationale for closing mink farms,” Balloux said, “but the mutation is not the right argument.”
WHO played down fears?
“The World Health Organization played down fears of a mutated coronavirus strain, whose discovery precipitated the move,” reported Adela Suliman, London correspondent for NBC News Digital.
“Fur Europe, a Brussels-based umbrella organization representing national associations in 28 European countries, said there was no indication mink farming was an important factor in transmitting the virus,” reported Jan M. Olsen, Copenhagen correspondent for Associated Press.
Fur Europe “urged Denmark to release its research for scrutiny amongst international scientists,” Olsen added.
Responding, “Denmark uploaded 500 genetic sequences into databases open to scientists around the globe,” on November 5, 2020, “and is expected to add hundreds more in the days to come,” wrote Helen Branswell for Stat News.
Jutland residents in quarantine
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen meanwhile took further measures to contain any possible human health risk from infected mink.
“From tonight,” Frederiksen announced on November 5, 2020, “citizens in North Jutland are strongly encouraged to stay in their area to prevent the spread of infection. We are asking you in North Jutland to do something completely extraordinary,” Frederiksen acknowledged, adding that “The eyes of the world are on us.”
The United Kingdom, after initially ordering that people entering from Denmark be quarantined for two weeks, on November 6, 2020 banned all inbound travel from Denmark by non-British residents, including anyone who had been in Denmark during the preceding two weeks.
“Denmark not the next Wuhan”
University of Copenhagen virologist Allan Randrup Thomsen told Guardian reporters Sophie Kevany and Tom Carstensen that Denmark is not “on the verge of being the next Wuhan,” referring to the Chinese city where COVID-19 was first identified.
However, warned Thomsen, “This variant can develop further, so that it becomes completely resistant, and then a vaccine does not matter. So it’s serious.”
Other mink-farming nations resisted following the Dutch, French, Polish, and now Danish lead.
“We have zero cases” ––Finland
“Right now we have zero cases [of COVID-19] in fur farms in Finland. We have a total of about 700 fur farms and of those about 150 are mink, all COVID-19-free so far,” Finnish Fur Breeders’ Association research director Jussi Peura told Kevany and Carstensen.
Sweden acknowledged COVID-19 infections on at least ten mink farms in County Blekinge, in the southeast region where about half of the 20 remaining Swedish mink farms are located.
However, acting state epizootiologist Karl Stahl, of the Department of Disease Control and Epidemiology at State National Veterinary Institute in Uppsala, Sweden, told ProMED that, “We do not intend to cull the animals at this point. The Swedish mink population is small,” Stahl said, “approximately 600 000 animals, of which around 80% are already planned to be killed for fur production within the nearest weeks. Based on this, a decision to cull will have limited effect and not speed up the process of reducing the number of susceptible animals.
“Special procedures” for pelting
“Environment specialists will work out special procedures for collecting the pelts in a safe way,” Stahl pledged, adding that “The source of infection at these new farms has not been determined yet, but the authorities are investigating eventual human cases.”
At least two Swedish fur farmers had contracted COVID-19 from their mink, Stahl confirmed.
But Swedish Board of Agriculture chief veterinarian Hakan Henrikson told media that the COVID-19 mutation reported by Denmark has not yet been seen in Sweden.
“The European Commission has ruled out an European Union wide ban on fur animal farming in connection with Covid-19,” reported Jack Guy for CNN.
A warning from ProMED
However, “Sweden has become the sixth country where COVID-19 infections have been reported to affect farmed minks,” observed ProMED animal disease and zoonoses moderator Arnon Shimshony, of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, “following the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, the U.S.A. and Italy,” all but the U.S. being European Union members.
“There are many other countries where minks are farmed, led by the world’s largest, China,” Shimshony continued.
China, producing 20.7 million mink pelts in 2018, has cut mink production in half since 2015, due to falling pelt prices, but with Denmark leaving the business, is the unchallenged mink industry leader.
“Risk of transmission through pelts & fur was considered negligible”
Shimshony on November 8, 2020 offered several further observations, three days after the World Organization for Animal Health issued draft guidance on reducing the risk of COVID-19 spillover from humans to domestic animals and the converse.
“Based on current evidence,” Shimshony began, “the risk of introduction of SARS-CoV-2 from people to animals is high in mustelids, including mink and ferrets, as well as raccoon dogs [tanuki, commonly raised for fur in Asia]; low in rabbits; and negligible in other farmed livestock species.
“Since mink pelts are harvested annually in November/December in the northern hemisphere,” Shimshony pointed out, “the risk of transmission through pelts and fur was considered negligible before the pandemic began, in the months preceding the 2019 harvesting period.
But pelts and fur may be contaminated now
“However, there is the possibility that pelts and fur from infected mink are contaminated with SARS-CoV-2 in the 2020 harvesting period,” Shimshony warned.
“Additionally, when harvested pelts and fur are stored in an infected farm, there is a possibility that they could be contaminated from the presence of infection at the farm. Because pelts are usually stored in a freezer,” Shimshony noted, “the virus may stay viable on the pelts and fur
and be transported to other regions.”
What Shimshony did not mention is that mink ranches in China, including in the Wuhan area, are not always located in rural areas, as in the U.S. and most other nations with mink industries.
Mink & horseshoe bats
Rather, as in Denmark and the Netherlands, Chinese mink ranchers often operate from warehouse-like tin-clad sheds situated in industrial suburbs, close to the slaughterhouses whose offal is used to feed the mink, in relatively close proximity to hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of people.
COVID-19 could easily have passed from horseshoe bats, a common species believed to be the initial host, to ranched mink at such a facility, and then have infected humans in Wuhan during the 2019 mink killing and pelting season.
If that happened, human deaths would have begun occurring just about exactly when they did, around the beginning of December 2019, albeit that they were not identified until a month later.
10,000 mink die of COVID-19 in Utah
“I do not think there is a mink profession in the future,” Danish mink breeder Frank Andersen told Radio Denmark.
U.S. public health and agriculture officials, and U.S. mink ranchers, too, meanwhile continue to resist the message and the mounting evidence, even after the COVID-19 deaths of nearly 10,000 minks at nine Utah fur farms in Utah, and the deaths of another 5,400 mink on two farms in Taylor County, Wisconsin.
No actions to close down mink farms in the U.S. have been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, but the agency is monitoring the situation closely, Wisconsin Division of Animal Health public information officer Kevin Hoffman told Laura Schulte of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
U.S. mink ranches produced about 3.1 million pelts in 2018, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
“Investigate threat” on Oregon mink farms
The Center for Biological Diversity has asked the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Oregon Health Authority “to investigate the threat of COVID-19 outbreaks and viral mutations at the state’s mink-fur farming operations,” said Center for Biological Diversity spokespersons Lori Ann Burd and Hannah Connor.
“Oregon is home to 11 registered factory farms that produce fur-bearing animals including mink, containing about 430,000 animals, and an unknown number of smaller mink-rearing operations,” Burd and Connor said.
Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy, both projects of former Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle, said in a joint statement that the susceptibility of mink to COVID-19 means it is “very hard to justify keeping this receding industry alive,” and called for a federal buy-out of mink farms.
“If no one bought fur, this wouldn’t happen”
Said current Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block, “Fur is already in decline globally. The past few years have seen steep drops in pelt prices and stockpiles left unsold at fur auctions. Now, with the pandemic, these animals are paying a heavier price than ever for frivolous items that no one needs to wear. This has to stop, and the Danish government has the perfect opportunity to show other fur-producing nations how to do so.”
Said One Voice for Animals founder Muriel Arnal, from France, “All these animals are raised to produce fur. Needless to say, if nobody bought any, this drama wouldn’t happen.”
Arnal looked forward to the impending closure of the last four mink farms in France.
French environment minister Barbara Pompili on September 29, 2020 announced that the mink farms would be closed within five years, but the Danish liquidation puts political pressure on France to move faster.