Denmark Plans to Kill 15 Million Mink to Prevent Spread of Mutated Coronavirus on Fur Farms

At least 12 Danish people have been infected with a SARS-CoV-2 mutation linked to the ferret-like animals

Close-up photo of a mink in a cage. The mink is on the right side of the photo and has white and gray fur; its face looks at the camera. It is in a wire cage.
The U.S., the Netherlands, Denmark and Spain have all reported coronavirus outbreaks on mink farms. Dzīvnieku brīvība via Flickr Commons under CC BY 2.0

The government of Denmark announced that it plans to cull more than 15 million mink—the country's whole population—after reports that the ferret-like animals can transmit a mutated form of the novel coronavirus to people, reports James Gorman for the New York Times.

At a press conference yesterday, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said 12 people have been infected with the mutated virus from minks, reports Sophie Kevany for the Guardian. Plus, around 400 people infected with the coronavirus have been connected to mink farms, though most cases come from exposed farm workers spreading the virus through their communities, reports Dina Fine Maron for National Geographic.

To stop the spread from mink to humans and prevent the emergence of any more mutations, Denmark announced that it will cull all the mink from around 1,200 fur farms across the country. Of that total, 207 farms have coronavirus-positive minks, reports National Geographic.

Genetic mutations of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, do occur "slowly, but regularly," according to the Times, and "a different variant of the virus would not, in itself, be cause for concern."

Details of how this specific mutation behaves in infected humans are still unclear. The Danish government has said that the 12 patients infected with the mutated virus have not responded well to antibodies. Scientists are still waiting to analysis samples of the mutated virus to study how much it differs from the current strain.

"The mutated virus in mink may pose a risk to the effectiveness of a future vaccine," Frederiksen tells the Guardian.

Countries have reported coronavirus outbreaks among mink throughout this year. More than one million mink in the Netherlands and nearly 100,000 in Spain were culled to prevent further transmission, Aritz Parra and Mike Corder reported for the Associated Press in August. Plus, fur farms in Utah also culled thousands of mink this year, reports Nicole Wetsman for The Verge.

"Farmed mink do not exhibit a large amount of genetic diversity, which can favor infectious disease transmission and susceptibility," Jasmine Reed, a spokesperson for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells National Geographic. "Additionally, farmed mink are often housed in relatively high densities, which favors spread of the virus."

These outbreaks deal a major blow to the fur industry. Denmark is the second largest producer of mink fur, and the 2020 mink populations sums up to an estimated $350 million, Magnus Ljung, the CEO of Saga Furs, tells the Guardian. The Netherlands is currently the third largest mink fur producer, but Dutch authorities already had plans to phase out mink farming by 2024. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the timeline got bumped up to early 2021, reports National Geographic.

The prevalence of coronavirus among mink raises concerns for how the virus can jump between species and mutate along the way, possibly creating new strains to infect people. Researchers are currently studying high-risk species—including chimpanzees, pets and bats—to determine how the virus can spread from humans to them, or vice-versa, reports the Times.

And though the culling of millions of mink may sound cruel, animal advocacy groups are in support of Denmark's decision.

"Although not a ban on fur farming, this move signals the end of suffering for millions of animals confined to small wire cages on Danish fur farms solely for the purposes of a trivial fur fashion that no one needs," Joanna Swabe, a senior director of Humane Society International/Europe, tells the Guardian. "We commend the Danish prime minister on her decision to take such an essential and science-led step to protect Danish citizens from the deadly coronavirus."

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