Denmark to cull 15 million mink after coronavirus spillover into humans

Danish authorities say new research suggests need to cull all the mink on its 1,200 farms.

Published 5 Nov 2020, 20:43 GMT
Denmark plans to cull all 15 million mink farmed in the country to help protect people ...

Denmark plans to cull all 15 million mink farmed in the country to help protect people from contracting the virus.

Photograph by Mads Claus Rasmussen, Ritzau Scanpix, AFP, Getty Images

Almost 400 human cases of coronavirus appear to be linked to sick minks on fur farms in Denmark, officials announced at a press conference this week. The revelation suggests that mink-to-human transmission is more pervasive than previously thought, though most of the coronavirus cases were likely passed from humans exposed to sickened farm workers and their contacts in the community—not from exposure to infected animals.

Danish authorities said that they now want to cull all 15 million mink at the country’s roughly 1,200 fur farms as a precautionary step to protect people from contracting the virus. A total of 207 fur farms in Denmark house minks that have tested positive for the coronavirus. The decision is sparked by findings from the country’s public health authority, the State Serum Institute, which suggested that the virus strain circulating between minks and humans may have mutated enough to compromise future vaccine effectiveness, prompting the need to take immediate action.

In the press conference, Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said that genomic analysis of Danish human cases of coronavirus indicates half of the 783 human cases of coronavirus in the northern part of the country are related to mink, according to the Associated Press. Danish officials did not immediately respond to National Geographic’s request for comment.

Denmark is the world’s second-largest producer of mink pelts after China, so the culling of all its remaining mink will have huge implications for the fur industry. The Netherlands—the third largest producer of mink—announced in June that it planned to speed up the timeline for shutting down its mink industry as a result of widespread coronavirus infections among its animals and research suggesting that at least two farm workers had contracted coronavirus from minks. Before the pandemic, the Netherlands had planned to wind down its mink industry by 2024, but now it is expected to shut down all operations by early 2021. China has made no announcements about any changes to its mink industry.

The U.S. situation

The United States, too, has confirmed that minks have contracted coronavirus on fur farms in Utah, Wisconsin, and Michigan, though so far there is no evidence that the minks are making humans sick in the U.S. “These investigations are ongoing, and we will release data once available,” says Jasmine Reed, a U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention spokesperson.

Minks at 207 of the almost 1,200 fur farms in Denmark have been infected with coronavirus. Government workers have culled more than a million mink.

Photograph by Mads Claus Rasmussen, Ritzau Scanpix, AFP, Getty Images

“We are aware of Denmark’s cases and efforts,” U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesperson Joelle Hayden says, noting that the agency is working with the CDC and other partners to monitor the situation outside the U.S.

Unlike Europe, the U.S. has not culled all the minks at farms where animals have contracted coronavirus. There is no federal regulation or requirement concerning methods for handling coronavirus infections at mink farms in the U.S. So far federal authorities have deferred to states to handle outbreaks.

Susceptible species

Denmark first reported that it had discovered sick mink on its fur farms in June, but at that point it appeared that human workers were passing the virus to the minks. At that time, 11,000 animals on the infected farm were culled. More recently, millions of mink have been killed at fur farms in Denmark, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Mick Madsen, the head of communications for Fur Europe, a Brussels-based industry group that represents fur farmers and manufacturers, confirmed the details of the culling decision by Danish authorities, but he declined to comment on the Danish government’s decision or how it would affect the fur industry.

Mink may be more susceptible to the coronavirus than other animals due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors, the CDC’s Reed explains.

Farmed mink do not exhibit a large amount of genetic diversity, which can favor infectious disease transmission and susceptibility,” Reed says. “Additionally, farmed mink are often housed in relatively high densities, which favors spread of the virus.”

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com
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