Bred for their soft fur, mink are the only animal proven to both contract the new coronavirus and re-infect humans, compromising efforts to stop the spread of the virus.
Although small creatures have not played a major role in the spread of the virus so far, the alarm bells have recently been sounded in Denmark.
When did the mink start to get infected?
The first case of a mink infected with the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and a mink farm worker subsequently infected, was recorded in the Netherlands in April, according to a recent report from the European Center disease prevention and control. (ECDC).
“It has been established that human-to-human and mink-to-human transmission can occur,” wrote the ECDC.
Since then, mink infections have been reported in a number of other countries, including Denmark, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the United States.
In Denmark, the world’s largest exporter of mink skins and the country hardest hit by mink infections, more than 280 mink farms have been infected and minks have been slaughtered.
A total of 373 people in Denmark have been infected with one of the many mutated strains of mink, according to the most recent count from last week.
While several animals, such as cats, can be infected with the new coronavirus, they are currently not known to re-infect humans.
Why then aim for them? According to the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety, minks are more likely to re-infect humans because animals are more likely to have a high viral load in their overcrowded cages and therefore d ‘be more infectious.
What danger does all of this represent for humans?
Mutated mink strains are neither more contagious nor more dangerous to humans than other strains of the virus, according to the ECDC.
But scientists have warned that mink could become a source of the virus that could both easily infect people and lead to new mutations.
ECDC urged member states to step up testing in mink farms.
In most of the affected countries, mink from infected farms has been slaughtered. Some countries, like Ireland, have decided to cut down their stocks even though they have not recorded any cases.
Why has Denmark sounded the alarm bells?
RNA viruses like the new coronavirus that first appeared in China at the end of 2019 mutate regularly without major consequences.
But in early November, experts from the Danish Institute of Infectious Diseases SSI identified a new strain of mink, called “Cluster 5”, which had infected 12 people in August and September.
The strain has a mutation in the gene encoding the coronavirus spike protein, which it uses to enter cells. This has worried experts because changes in this region could affect the ability of the immune system to detect infection, as many vaccines train the immune system to block the spike protein.
As a result, any future vaccine against Covid-19 could be less effective on this strain.
Following the discovery, the Danish government, which had previously ordered infected farms to slaughter their animals, announced the slaughter of all 15 to 17 million mink in the country.
It also imposed strict restrictions on the 280,000 people living in areas where “group 5” human cases had occurred.
Authorities announced last week that no new cases of “Cluster 5” had been detected in mink or people since mid-September, and said the strain was “very likely” extinct.
Scientists remain cautious about the real danger posed by the mutation for vaccines.
This “could … have an impact on the efficacy of the candidate vaccines developed”, but “investigations and studies are underway to clarify the extent of these possible implications,” the ECDC noted.
What does this mean for the mink industry?
The slaughter of all mink in Denmark and the Netherlands means the industry – which supplies hides to fashion houses – will never recover, according to farmers who say it takes more than 10 years to grow mink with top quality fur.
Even before the virus, the industry had struggled in recent years with growing opposition to wearing fur.
Some countries have already banned mink farming, while several big fashion houses such as Chanel and Gucci have stopped using fur, with “fur prices dropping sharply as a result. , the head of the animal rights association Anima told AFP.
According to Statistics Denmark, exports of mink skins fell 63% between 2013 and 2019, to 4.9 billion crowns (657 million euros, 782 million dollars).
China is the world’s largest market for furs.
© 2020 AFP