Denmark to cull 17 million mink population as new mutation of COVID spreads to humans

Ellen Manning
·3 min read
Mink grown in fur farming. In the box for photography, powdered with snow.
Mink grown in fur farming. In the box for photography, powdered with snow.

Denmark has announced it plans to cull more than 15 million mink amid fears that a mutated form of coronavirus is spreading to humans.

Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen announced on Wednesday that all mink at mink farms in Denmark must be killed to stop the spread of the virus to humans in what some have warned could jeopardise any future vaccines.

Denmark is the world’s largest producer of mink fur.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Frederiksen said despite efforts to cull infected herds, more than 200 mink farms in the country had been infected and the outbreak had spread to humans.

According to reports, the mutation has so far been found to have spread to 12 people who had shown a reduced sensitivity to antibodies.

“The mutated virus in mink may pose a risk to the effectiveness of a future vaccine”, Frederiksen said.

Minks have also been culled in other countries including the Netherlands and Spain after finding infections.

But one scientist has warned that while there have been several massive outbreaks in mink farms in multiple countries, it will not necessarily change strains that affect humans.

Prof Francois Balloux, Director at the UCL Genetics Institute, said while minks are highly susceptible to Sars-CoV-2 - the virus that causes COVID-19 - so are most carnivores including dogs and domestic cats.

He said: “#SARSCoV2 mutations acquired in minks are not concerning. We already knew that #SARSCoV2 can transmit from minks to humans. Though, this should be of no concern in terms of the evolution of the transmissibility of the virus.

“The population of #SARSCoV2 is so large that any mutation viable to the virus has arisen many times by now. There is no evidence that any such mutation affects transmissibility in humans (with the possible, questionable exception of D614G).

“There are thousands of mutations in #SARSCoV2 arising constantly. The fact that a few have been observed in minks will not change the strains in circulation in humans. If they were beneficial for the virus to infect its human host, they would be at high frequency already.”

Watch: Can you catch the coronavirus twice?

In October a study by University College London (UCL) scientists, published in Scientific Reports found that 26 animals, including pigs, horses and rabbits, could be vulnerable to Sars-CoV-2.

Lead author Professor Christine Orengo, of UCL Structural and Molecular Biology, said: “We wanted to look beyond just the animals that had been studied experimentally, to see which animals might be at risk of infection, and would warrant further investigation and possible monitoring.

“The animals we identified may be at risk of outbreaks that could threaten endangered species or harm the livelihoods of farmers.

“The animals might also act as reservoirs of the virus, with the potential to re-infect humans later on, as has been documented on mink farms.”

At the time researchers predicted possible infection in domestic cats, dogs, mink, lions, and tigers — all of which have had reported cases — as well as ferrets and macaques, which have been infected in laboratory studies.

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