Mink are small, feisty, territorial animals that can live very close by to humanity. They are somewhat aquatic, living naturally along riverbanks and waterways and are hunted by us and many other forms of predators from great horned owls to wolves. Because of this, they are becoming endangered. But there’s another, more important endangerment going on and that’s the immense business of fur farms. Mink farms have thrived alongside trapping for many years and in more recent times have become the focus of animal welfare groups. I can see why. When mink die, especially in large numbers, their bodies float from a kill floor like the soft dismemberment of a feather pillow.
This time, at this very hour, the threat to mink isn’t predatory. It is viral, and it is zoonotic, which means the disease spreading through their populations has potentially moved in from humans that work with them (zoonosis is defined as an infection or disease that is transmissible between animals and humans). It is believed this is exactly what happened over the course of late summer when a strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, moved into mink populations in the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Italy, the U.S., and Denmark. The Netherlands saw it as an opportunity to discontinue farming mink, which will go into effect in 2024. They and others recognized that coronaviruses could infect mink in ways that might prove to be a long-term threat. But this is where the story makes a corkscrew into that dangerous territory of “what’s most likely.”
The progression goes like this:
October 9, 2020: Thousands of mink die at fur farms in Utah and Wisconsin after a series of coronavirus outbreaks. At least 8000 animals are lost to Covid-19 in Utah.
The virus first appeared in mink in August. Farmworkers had already fallen ill in July, research indicating the virus was transmitted from humans to animals, and as of that date hadn’t been transmitted animal to human. Utah’s outbreak, the first among mink in the U.S., felt like a “unidirectional path,” according to Dr. Dean Taylor, State Veterinarian of Utah.
One has to remember that mink, especially older mink, appear to suffer similar symptoms as humans, except in accelerated form — from difficulty breathing and crusting around the eyes to a not unusual death the day after these symptoms are recognized. Thus, this set of circumstances was likely to repeat itself rapidly in places with mink farm populations, and the cluster of cases in Utah spread to nine farms. Pelts from infected mink were either contained, buried or incinerated.
November 5, 2020: Almost a month later, Denmark’s prime minister asked that the government cull all 15 million mink in Danish farms to minimize risk of re-transmitting a new coronavirus to humans. A report from a government agency that maps the coronavirus in Denmark had shown a mutation in the virus which was found in 12 people in the northern part of the country who became infected by mink. Health Minister Magnus Heunicke, in addition, added that half of the 783 human Covid-19 cases now present in northern Denmark were related to mink. This plainly indicates a viral mutation happened and that mutation came back through a zoonotic infection from mink to humans. It was immediately mentioned that the mutated virus in mink could have devastating consequences worldwide.
To put things in closer perspective, Denmark’s Minister for Food said 207 farms were now infected, up from 41 the previous month. They were planning to compensate farmers for a mass slaughter of mink, a tragedy wrapped in financial restitution, at least for now.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., some 12,000 animals died of the disease on farms in Utah and Wisconsin. Expectation of a transmission back through mink to humans was expected to be very low.
November 9, 2020 (today): Four days later, mutations in coronavirus have triggered news of now 17 million farmed mink in Denmark to be culled. Part of the country has been put under lockdown after Danish authorities found worrying genetic changes that might undermine the effectiveness of future Covid-19 vaccines. About those 12 people I mentioned earlier, scientists are now saying they have a mink-related strain of the virus that is less sensitive to protective antibodies, raising concerns about vaccine development. It is further stated that every time a virus spreads between animals it changes, and if that change is very different from the one that is circulating among humans, it could compromise a vaccine or treatment slated to help with the first outbreak strain.
And then there’s today’s update of only a few hours ago in which Denmark has dropped plans for massive mink culling as coronavirus mutation fears escalate and a pool of infection remains in the animal. The rationale to cull is now claimed not to be science-based and will have an enormously devastating effect on livelihoods there. This has a familiar sound in a time of Covid in the United States, a time that has pushed people to their financial limits and caused them to question everything real and true about a pandemic. However, this recent shape-shift has a far uglier truth than the one we humans are currently experiencing in the U.S. This is the first of what could be other mutations that co-exist between more essential animals and humans — food animals, the culling of which has the power to unhinge our food supply. The mink are only a bellwether. They merely remind us of what could happen in the world of a circulating, mutating virus.
The realization that we are strained beyond our limits to conceive of an ever-worsening pandemic, not for the virus we’re beginning to understand, but for the hobgoblins that can interrupt that process, destroy our efforts to formulate a stable vaccine, and give us a financial break is worrisome indeed. But even worse is the formula by which viruses have succeeded so well through time. Those humans who survive Covid-19 will not be exempt from its mutant cousins, and those relatives could file through our lives for a very long time to come. This might be the moment you have to say to yourself, “This could get worse.” Because it certainly could.
References include: Wikipedia, CNN News, CBS News, and BBC News