The Danish government will slaughter millions of minks at more than 1,000 farms, citing concerns that a mutation in the novel coronavirus that has infected the mink could potentially affect the effectiveness of a vaccine for humans.
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced this at a press conference on Wednesday. Denmark, one of the world’s largest exporters of mink fur, has 15 million or more minks. She said the armed forces would be involved in the culling of minks.
Kare Molbak, the head of the State Serum Institute, the government’s department of public health and infectious diseases, warned at the news conference that a mutation could affect the effectiveness of future vaccines. The government has notified the World Health Organization of the virus mutation and 12 people in the Jutland area know it is known and that it is weakly responsive to antibodies, according to news reports.
The WHO confirmed by email that it “has been informed by Denmark of a number of people infected with mink coronavirus and showing some genetic changes in the virus”. WHO said Denmark is “investigating the epidemiological and virological implications of these findings and killing the mink population. We are in contact with them to find out more about this event. “
With no published reports on the nature of the mutation or how the virus variant was tested, scientists outside Denmark who studied the virus remained somewhat in the dark. Dr. Stanley Perlman, a microbiologist at the University of Iowa and a novel coronavirus specialist, said he could not evaluate the Danish statements without further information.
Dr. Jonathan Epstein, vice president of science and outreach for the EcoHealth Alliance, a conservation organization, said he hadn’t seen any details yet, but, “Somebody should release the sequences soon, and evolutionary biologists will be everywhere.”
Emma Hodcroft, a geneticist at the University of Basel who is tracking the spread of the novel corona virus, warned on Twitter to be careful. “Don’t panic,” tweeted Dr. Hodcroft. “Scientists are updated when we have more information.”
In September, Dutch scientists reported in an article not yet peer-reviewed that the virus jumped between mink and humans. In Denmark, the government is describing a version of the virus that migrated from mink to humans.
The coronavirus mutates slowly but regularly, and a different variant of the virus in and of itself would not be a cause for concern, experts have said.
Researchers looked at a mutation in the virus’ spike protein called D614G that can increase transmission. They concluded that there is as yet no evidence that the particular mutation would increase virulence or affect the way a vaccine works.
Denmark had already started killing all mink on 400 farms that were either infected or close enough to infected farms to cause concern. Killing all minks will wipe out the industry for years to come.
Minks belong to the weasel family, along with ferrets, who can easily become infected with the coronavirus. Ferrets seem to have mild symptoms. Mink kept in crowded conditions, ideal for spreading a virus, can get quite sick and die. Minks have also been infected in other countries, including the Netherlands and some US states. Thousands of minks were killed in Utah due to a coronavirus outbreak, but authorities there said the mink did not transmit the virus to humans, it actually transmitted the virus.
Many conservationists are concerned about the spread of the virus to populations of animals such as chimpanzees, which are believed to be susceptible, although cases have not yet been identified. Research groups are testing bats, pets, and wildlife in the United States.
Researchers are also concerned about what happens when the virus moves from one species to another and can take on changes or mutations. While most of these changes are unlikely to be a problem for humans, there is always a chance that strains of the virus could become more contagious or virulent.
Animal Protection Denmark, an advocacy group, recommended a long-term solution to the mink and coronavirus problem: “The right decision would be to end mink farming entirely and help farmers in other professions that do not endanger public health and animal welfare.”