Utah Animal Rights Coalition calls on governor to shut down mink farms amid COVID-19 outbreaks

The Utah Animal Rights Coalition sent a letter to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert this week calling on him to “take more decisive action” to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the state’s mink farms.

More than 10,000 minks at Utah fur farms have died because of the coronavirus, forcing nine sites in three counties to quarantine. But despite continued reassurances from the state veterinarian that people don’t appear to be at risk from these outbreaks, the coalition argues the flare-ups pose a “serious and growing public health threat” as some early research indicates the virus can spread from minks to humans.

If true, the Utah Animal Rights Coalition says mink could act not only as “significant reservoirs” for viral transmission but would also represent “a biological factory for amplification and possible mutation” of the virus.

“This could result in new serotypes of SARS-CoV-2 that could prove to be even more dangerous, should they cross the species barrier and infect humans,” the letter states.

The coalition is calling for the governor to use his executive authority to immediately suspend all breeding operations on mink farms, mandate COVID-19 testing protocols for both animals and workers and facilitate “greater public transparency” about the mink outbreaks.

To make its case, the group cites research out of the Netherlands that was presented at last month’s European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases conference that found, with the use of genetic tracing techniques, that at least two people at the 16 farms that were studied were infected by mink.

The research has not been peer reviewed, and the data remains limited.

The Utah Animal Rights Coalition’s letter also points to statements made by Fur Commission USA’s Director of Research John Easley at the mink farming trade group’s annual convention last month, during which he noted the Netherlands research and said it “shows that mink can potentially be a reservoir for the virus for the human population.”

Researchers are “extremely confident that they’ve been able to demonstrate that [COVID-19] was brought on to farms by humans, the virus changed in the mink, and that changed virus was then transmitted back to people, and the people that got infected transmitted that virus to other people,” Easley said.

Michael Whelan, executive director of Fur Commission USA, said in an interview that Easley was speculating and that his comments should be viewed in the context of explaining the most recent research. The evidence that the virus can pass from mink to humans, he said, is slim.

“There’s literally a minuscule chance of COVID entering the human populations from minks," he said. "It’s much more likely for people to catch it at the grocery store than from a mink farm.”

But Jeremy Beckham, executive director of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, argues that the group’s video clip “says it all as far as what they’re hoping the public doesn’t learn.”

“When they’re talking amongst one another privately I think they’re kind of acknowledging the risk here," he said. “But when they speak to the public they’re trying to downplay it because they recognize this is a significant threat to their industry. I think they’re downplaying it because they’re nervous about their financial interests.”

Dr. Dean Taylor, the state’s veterinarian, said in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune that a “strong focus” of research on the local outbreaks will be to determine if there has been any spread to farm workers.

But he said that all studies in Utah have so far “indicated that the spread was from humans to mink and none indicate the reverse, as has been reported in the Netherlands.”

The mink farms in Utah, which he has declined to name, are still under a quarantine “restricting any movement of mink, products or waste as well as human traffic on or off the facilities." But Taylor said that the outbreaks “seem to have run their course at this time.”

In keeping with that evaluation of the conditions in Utah, Taylor said he sees “no value” in the requests the Utah Animal Rights Coalition has made of the governor. He particularly expressed opposition to the request for mandatory testing, which he said "would cripple the labs currently, similar to delays seen in human test labs.”

“The results we are waiting on” to see if the live mink retained the virus “will help us determine the need and scope of screening we will need to do,” he added.

Taylor said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has provided the mink industry with guidance on response and containment to outbreaks and said many of the facilities in Utah are “employing those recommendations.”

Most of the deaths in Utah have been in minks between the ages of 1 and 4 years, with the virus proving less deadly among younger animals. Fur from the dead infected animals will be processed to remove any traces of the virus and then used for coats and other garments, according to Fur Commission USA.

The Associated Press has reported that minks seem particularly susceptible to COVID-19, likely because of a protein in their lungs, the ACE2 receptor, which binds to the virus and appears to predict vulnerability to the infection, according to Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. Humans also have this protein in their lungs.

While the Utah Animal Rights Coalition largely makes its case for shutting down mink farm operations on the basis of human health, it ends the letter to the governor with an appeal to animal rights, arguing that ending fur farming in Utah — the second-largest producer of mink pelts used for coats and other luxury items — is “the humane thing to do.”

“It must be stressed that growing concerns about the treatment of animals have resulted in sluggish retail sales of fur products, which means that even before COVID-19, mink farming was a dying industry in Utah,” the letter concludes. “Half of all mink farms in Utah have already shut down for good this year. There is no reason not to facilitate the total end of this archaic and cruel industry that is now posing a serious public health threat to Utahns.”

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday about the letter.