Jim Keen: Mink farms are a perfect breeding ground for COVID-19

U.S. officials are ignoring the threat of mink farms to public health.

(Mads Claus Rasmussen | Ritzau Scanpix via AP) In this photo dated Nov. 6, 2020, mink look out from a pen on a farm near Naestved, Denmark.

The Salt Lake Tribune has done a commendable public service by staying ahead of the curve in providing vital information about ongoing risks that mink farms continue to pose to human health during a pandemic.

Through a series of Tribune news articles starting in August 2020, we first learned that thousands of mink on a dozen farms in Utah died from coronavirus also found in farm workers and that a wild mink in Utah was confirmed to be the first noncaptive native wildlife to test positive for the same COVID-19 variant found in farmed mink in the immediate vicinity, signaling an inability to contain the pathogen.

This month, a Danish legal team has written a report concluding that Denmark — where the world’s largest mink fur industry operated pre-pandemic — was wrong to shut down in 2020 during a wave of infections that included a new variant found in captive mink as well as in thousands of its citizens.

As an expert who spent decades studying highly infectious disease for the U.S. government, I am concerned that our mink industry here in the United States could misrepresent the conclusions from the Danish report and provide a false sense of assurance to the public about the risk factors stemming from mink farms.

If COVID-19 could design its perfect habitat, it might closely resemble a mink ranch: a highly stressed, immune-suppressed, inbred host in the form of thousands of individual mink packed into small cages. It’s a virtual incubator, readied for infections and mutations.

This is exactly what we have been witnessing at home and abroad: Five coronavirus variants have emerged from mink farms and spilled over to humans, and we’ve seen outbreaks on at least 450 mink farms in 13 countries throughout Europe, Canada and the United States.

The variant that emerged in Denmark was the first of several to spill over in France, Latvia, Poland and the United States. Denmark responded appropriately by putting public health first and went further to ban mink fur farms March 2021. Many followed, including 15 European nations.

Our country, however, has chosen to ignore the risk and hope for the best — a woefully deficient response in the wake of news this month that a new omicron variant, BA.5, may be the “worst yet” due to its transmissibility and ability to evade antibodies.

While a coalition of jurisdictions, including Poland and Germany, are calling for an EU-wide ban of mink farms, the United States has stuck its head in the sand, and Denmark’s opposition party is using this latest report as a political tool against Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen for making “grossly misleading” and “reprehensible” statements” when she announced millions of mink would be killed to prevent transmission of COVID-19 variants.

The mass killing of mink was, to be sure, a horrific spectacle. But those animals were placed in a terrible environment by the fur trade and, even if the government had not acted, they would have been pelted and killed within three months of the mass cull. Their fate was sealed when they were bred, placed in small wire cages and destined for the backs of luxury consumers in China.

Frederiksen admitted that the cull should have been preceded by legislative action, but she is right not to back down from a responsible and sound choice to ban mink farms when the farms threatened to launch a new viral wave and to enhance the dangers of the pandemic.

“We have a great responsibility towards our own population,” Frederiksen said at a 2020 press conference. “But with the mutation that has now been found, we have an even greater responsibility for the rest of the world as well.”

U.S legislators and our public health agencies in the United States have so far neither been brave enough nor felt a duty to curtail a small, luxury industry that violates animal welfare norms every day but, most importantly, threatens to produce more mink variants with the potential to infect and kill millions of people.

Jim Keen | Center for a Humane Economy

Jim Keen, D.V.M., Ph.D., Mitchell, South Dakota, was a senior veterinary researcher focused on livestock and zoonotic infections with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Nebraska for 15 years and later faculty at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Veterinary Medicine for 13 years. He is director of veterinary sciences at the Center for a Humane Economy.