A mutated form of the coronavirus that could potentially spread to humans has been found in hundreds of mink farms in countries across Europe including Denmark. Officials throughout the country, which is currently the world’s largest exporter of mink fur, will now have to cull the entire mink population, which is believed to be up to 17 million.
Coronavirus cases have also been found in mink in Spain and the Netherlands since the pandemic started, but the number of cases in Denmark has quickly gotten out of hand. 207 mink farms are currently confirmed to have been affected in the peninsular of Jutland and at least five new strains of coronavirus have been detected.
“We have a great responsibility towards our own population, but with the mutation that has now been found, we have an even greater responsibility for the rest of the world as well,” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said in a news conference, warning that the mutated virus posed a ‘risk to the effectiveness’ of a future Covid-19 vaccine.
A report by the Danish government stated that the mutated forms of the virus have been found to decrease the body’s effectiveness in forming antibodies, potentially rendering current vaccines under development for Covid-19 ineffective.
As mink in over 1000 farms in Denmark are set to be killed over the next couple of weeks, the World Health Organization (WHO) have announced that they are in regular contact with the Danish authorities to discuss the outbreak as well as to monitor the situation, in particular how it could affect the world outside Denmark.
“The worst-case scenario is that we would start off a new pandemic in Denmark. There’s a risk that this mutated virus is so different from the others that we’d have to put new things in a vaccine and therefore [the mutation] would slam us all in the whole world back to the start,” said Prof Kåre Mølbak, vaccine expert and director of infectious diseases at Denmark’s State Serum Institute (SSI).
However he also added that the world was in a better place than when the Covid-19 outbreak first began. “We know the virus, have measures in place including testing and infection control, and the outbreak will be contained, to the best of our knowledge.”
In July, 100,000 mink had to be put down in Spain as authorities caught hold of an outbreak on a farm in the Aragon province. Similarly, the Netherlands has had to cull tens of thousands of minks earlier in the year as outbreaks were detected in a number of farms in the country.
Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, said: “The idea that the virus mutates in a new species is not surprising as it must adapt to be able to use mink receptors to enter cells and so will modify the spike protein to enable this to happen efficiently.
“The danger is that the mutated virus could then spread back into man and evade any vaccine response which would have been designed to the original, non-mutated version of the spike protein, and not the mink-adapted version. Of course, the mink version may not transmit well to man, so it’s a theoretical risk but Denmark is clearly taking a precautionary stance in aiming to eradicate the mink version so that this possibility is avoided or made much less likely.”
According to data released by the Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, Denmark has now reported more than 50,000 confirmed human cases of Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, as well as 733 deaths. Studies are currently taking place in the hope of finding out exactly how and why mink have caught and spread the infection so easily.
“More than 50 million mink a year are bred for their fur, mainly in China, Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland. Outbreaks have been reported in fur farms in the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Sweden and the US, and millions of animals have had to be culled,” BBC Environment correspondent Helen Briggs said.
“Mink, like their close relatives ferrets, are known to be susceptible to coronavirus, and like humans, they can show a range of symptoms, from no signs of illness at all, to severe problems, such as pneumonia.
“Mink become infected through catching the virus from humans. But genetic detective work has shown that in a small number of cases, in the Netherlands and now Denmark, the virus seems to have passed the other way, from mink to humans.
“The big public health concern is that any mutation to the coronavirus as it passes between mink and humans might be enough to stop human vaccines working, if and when they become available. Some scientists are now calling for a complete ban on mink production, saying it impedes our response and recovery from the pandemic.”