Denmark to cull its mink population over fears a mutated strain of COVID-19 infected humans
Up to 400 COVID-19 cases in northern Denmark are related to mink, Danish authorities say.(Reuters: Fabian Bimmer)
Denmark is set to cull up to 17 million mink, after a mutation of the coronavirus was found to spread from the animals to humans.
- Denmark to cull its mink to control the risk of human COVID-19 transmission
- Virus strains in mink and humans were found to be less sensitive to antibodies
- The mutated strain could effect the development of an effective vaccine
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said the new virus strain was found in 12 people who got infected by mink.
Health authorities found that the mutated strain was less sensitive to antibodies, which may weaken the effect of future vaccines.
“It is very, very serious,” Ms Frederiksen said.
Half of the 783 human COVID-19 cases in northern Denmark “are related” to mink, though they may not have been directly infected by the animals, Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said.
Outbreaks at mink farms have persisted in the Nordic country, the world’s largest producer of mink furs, despite repeated efforts to cull infected animals since June.
Denmark’s police, army and home guard will now be deployed to speed up the culling process.
Tougher lockdown restrictions and intensified tracing efforts will also be implemented to contain the virus in some areas of Northern Denmark, home to a large number of mink farms.
Animal to human COVID transmission a cause for concern
The virus that first infected people in China late last year probably came from bats, and later spread from person to person, as other coronaviruses had done in the past.
Cats, tigers and dogs have picked up the new coronavirus from people.
But there hasn’t been documented evidence of these animals reinfecting humans with COVID-19, as is the case of the mink in Denmark.
Dr Sanjaya Senanayake says animal culls are often needed to control the spread of deadly infections, like COVID-19.(ABC News)
Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious disease specialist from the Australian National University, said the cases in Denmark are some of the first showing coronavirus spreading from humans to animals and back to humans.
“It is a cause for concern,” Dr Senanayake said.
“Particularly with mink farms and a mutated virus, we have to be very careful that it doesn’t get established in a wild animal population [that could become] a reservoir for future infections.”
A recent study from the Netherlands also found “strong evidence” that minks had infected humans with the coronavirus.
Dr Senanayake said if a new COVID-19 strain that mutated within the minks took hold in humans, it could mean new vaccines would need to be developed.
“Just because something’s mutated, doesn’t mean you can’t make a vaccine for it. You can,” he said.
“But then it involves a certain amount of development time and all the issues with producing a new vaccine.”
One million mink have already been culled in the Netherlands and Spain after COVID-19 infections were discovered in the mammals.
Thousands of mink on farms in the US state of Utah have died after contracting the coronavirus.
Is there a risk to other countries?
More than 200 out of the 1,139 fur farms in Denmark have been infected with COVID-19.(Reuters: Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix)
The COVID-19 virus has not been found in any animals in Australia, according to the Government’s Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment website.
The World Organisation for Animal Health has stated the coronavirus outbreaks “are being driven by person to person spread” rather than spread from animals.
But the latest cases in Denmark have sparked fears of a new outbreak.
Dr Senanayake said it was important that authorities control the spread of infection in animal populations, as it could ignite a chain reaction that poses a significant risk to humans.
“In the Netherlands, feral cats who were around those mink farms got infected as well. So, it might take a feral cat that meets a different type of mustelid — a ferret or some other animal — and then transmits it to that, and then it gets established within those populations,” he said.
“It could mutate and then come back to infect humans.”
The World Health Organization has called for full-scale scientific investigations of the complex issue of humans — outside China — infecting mink which in turn transmitted the virus back to humans.
“We have been informed by Denmark of a number of persons infected with coronavirus from mink, with some genetic changes in the virus,” WHO said in a statement emailed to Reuters in Geneva.
“The Danish authorities are investigating the epidemiological and virological significance of these findings.”