Covid-19 Reaches Mink Farms in Utah

Veterinarians have confirmed five cases in U.S. minks, but suspect the actual number is higher

A gray mink with a pink nose raises its paw onto the mesh of its cage where it was bred in Belarus
In spring, fur farms in the United States had raised biosecurity measures by increasing the use of personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and rubber boots. Photo by Viktor Drachev\TASS via Getty Images

The United States Department of Agriculture confirmed last week that minks at two Utah fur farms died after infection by the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 in humans, Eli Cahan reports for Science magazine.

The farmers realized that something was wrong after a dire uptick in mink deaths earlier this month. Normally two or three of the animals die each day on the farm, but at the beginning of August, “those fatality rates shot through the sky,” Bradie Jill Jones, a Utah Department of Health and Agriculture spokesperson, tells the New York Times’ Azi Paybarah.

The farmers called the Department of Health and Agriculture to report the situation on August 6. Then, they sent deceased animals to Utah State University veterinary pathologist Tom Baldwin for closer study. Baldwin received a “great many” examples of deceased minks, but only a few were in workable condition, he tells Science magazine.

Their lungs were “wet, heavy, red, and angry,” Baldwin tells Science—all signs of pneumonia. The minks’ lungs also resembled the lungs of minks who caught the coronavirus in Europe. Tests performed by a lab at Washington State University found five of the deceased minks were infected with the virus, and the USDA confirmed, reports the Washington Post’s Karin Brulliard.

The Utah farms “will be composting” the affected mink on site, Jones tells the New York Times, “so these animals would not be leaving the farms where these infections have broken out.”

The first cases of the coronavirus in minks appeared in Europe this spring. Since then, fur farms in the United States had raised biosecurity measures by increasing the use of personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and rubber boots, mink farmer Clayton Beckstead, also the regional manager for the Utah Farm Bureau, tells the Washington Post.

In late May, researchers in the Netherlands found evidence that minks transmitted the coronavirus to at least two workers on the farm, Dina Fine Maron reported for National Geographic at the time. The researchers emphasized that the possibility doesn’t pose a risk to the public, as the virus wasn’t found outside of the farm buildings.

But since then, more than one million minks on farms in the Netherlands and Spain have been culled as a precautionary measure, Aritz Parra and Mike Corder report for the Associated Press.

“With the evidence for farmed mink-to-human transmission, we definitely need to be concerned with the potential for domesticated animals that are infected to pass on their infection to us,” Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies ecologist Richard Ostfeld told the AP.

But Michael Whelan, executive director of Fur Commission USA, which represents mink fur farmers, doesn’t expect the virus to spread in U.S. farms.

“We don’t expect an outbreak anything like what is happening in Europe. The mink industry has taken biosecurity very seriously for many years,” Whelan tells the New York Times. He added, “Our mink farms are spread out over a much larger area than in Europe.”

Utah is the second-largest producer of mink pelts in the United States, behind Wisconsin, according to the New York Times. Most American minks are sold to buyers in China, but sales had slowed because of economic policy changes and reduced travel amid the pandemic, reports the Washington Post.

The cases in U.S. farms threaten the mink farming industry if the farms are required to cull their animals, Baldwin tells Science, but the spread is also worrying because there is a chance the virus could mutate to spread in the animals.

Dean Taylor, Utah’s state veterinarian, tells Science that the mink cases have “big implications … and [are] worthy of everyone’s attention.”

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