Coronavirus

Why Denmark Are Culling Millions Of Mink

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17 million mink are set to be culled in Denmark after fears a mutated strain of COVID-19 has been passed from them back to humans.

It’s a story that’s caused huge alarm because minks are the first animals in the world to do this.

And it’s raised bigger concerns about how animal interactions could impact vaccine efforts.

What’s Happening To Mink?

So, what do we know so far?

Denmark’s Prime Minister ordered the national cull after the World Health Organisation reported 214 people had been infected with SARS-CoV-2 variants associated with farmed mink.

According to the WHO, there isn’t enough evidence yet to predict how harmful the mutating strain might be.

But the Danish PM warned the situation could lead to devastating impacts, especially on the development of a future vaccine, and they’ve taken a hardline approach to controlling it.

A massive culling operation is now underway which will ultimately wipe out Denmark’s huge mink farming industry.

Why Do Mink Get COVID-19?

A few months ago, a similar coronavirus outbreak happened in the Netherlands and Spain where an estimated 1 million mink were culled.

And if we look to history, there have been a few examples of animals’ susceptibilities as carriers of deadly diseases.

In 1999 when the Nipah Virus infected Malaysia, roughly 900,000 pigs were culled. And in 1997 when Bird Flu hit Hong Kong, there was a mass culling of poultry.

But since the coronavirus pandemic hit there’s only really been a few cases of the virus in animals, like domestic dogs and cats, and tigers in a New York Zoo, but none of them are thought to have passed it onto their owners.

So, why are mink more susceptible?

Sanjaya Senanayake: “These particular animals unfortunately seem to have a predisposition for getting COVID.”

That’s Sanjaya Senanayake from ANU. He’s an Associate Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases.

Scientists weren’t surprised to find that mink can get Covid easily because they’re so closely related to ferrets, which have been used to study viral respiratory infections in humans ever since the 1930s when scientists found they could get influenza.

But observations from infected mink farms showed just how efficiently the mink could transmit the virus, and suggested that the high-density conditions of the farms may have increased the possibility for Covid to spread from mink to humans.

This was a huge worry because mink are typically farmed in concentrated regions in Europe.

But Professor Senanayake argues what would be more worrying is if this new strain goes on to infect further animal populations.

SS: “If it became established in those populations then it would have weeks, months, years to circulate, to nicely mutate and then come back at us in an unrecognisable form to our immune system and our vaccine, so that’s the concern.”

What Does This Mean For A Vaccine?

So, is this a threat to the development of a vaccine against COVID-19?

The SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused COVID-19 tends to mutate fairly slowly in humans.

This is good news for a vaccine, because it gives scientists enough time to work on finding a viable vaccine candidate, without worrying about mutations impacting it too much.

However, that all changes when a virus gets into an animal and is passed back.

SS: “When the virus gets into an animal the virus has to adapt, to attack and enter the animal’s cells which are – even though they’re mammals – are still different to ours.

Therefore, those mutations could potentially be bigger. And if that same mutated virus can come back to humans then our immune system may not recognise it and respond in the same way. And similarly, a vaccine may not respond in the same way.”

This is a story that is very much unfolding in the media while scientists themselves don’t have all the information.

While we do know that some animals like mink and ferrets are like humans in the way they get and transmit the virus, we can’t say that all animals pose an equal threat.

And even the WHO has said there are no peer-reviews yet on the findings from scientists in Denmark, and until that data is released, people won’t know how severe this new mink strain of the coronavirus is.

The Takeaway

What they have backed is Denmark’s decision to act now and cull, to avoid potentially devastating possibilities.

And as for Australia, Professor Senanayake told me there’s no immediate risks and there only would be, if people infected with the mutated strain brought it to our shores, which travel restrictions are stopping right now.