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Experts reacted cautiously to news of an mass cull of mink in Denmark after reports that a mutation of the SARS-CoV2 coronavirus found in the animals had spread to people.
As Vet Record went to press, eminent virologists said it was too early to judge the implications of the apparent new strain.
As of this week, Danish vets were understood to be involved in partial culls of the 17 million-strong captive mink population on fur farms in Denmark. However, the plans have run into political difficulties, with the centre-left minority government in Copenhagen unable to pass legislation enabling the cull because a centre-right contingent in the country’s parliament would not vote in favour. The impasse led to conflicting reports about the progress of the cull, and at the time of going to press it was unclear whether it will be able to be carried out to completion.
The fur industry accounts for more than €1 billion in annual exports for Denmark, with large volumes of trade to China. Fur farming has been illegal in the UK for around two decades but it is still allowed in the EU. Vet Record understands that, should a cull be carried out to completion, the industry would hope to restock with new animals.
Amid news of the apparent mutant form of virus, the UK closed its borders to anyone coming from Denmark except British citizens. The development follows Covid-19 outbreaks on fur farms in the Netherlands.
Scientists were said to have identified a ‘mutant spike protein’ in the virus isolated from the mink that is not neutralised by antibodies from previously infected people. Reports varied about the number of people infected with the mutated strain, which does not appear to be any more or less pathogenic but which Covid-19 vaccines currently under development may be unable to protect against.
James Wood, epidemiologist and head of department of veterinary medicine at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘Denmark has now reported persistent infections across its mink industry...which seem very similar to those reported from the Netherlands where slaughter had already been instigated.
‘In the Netherlands, the genotype seen in mink was reported to have spread back to people, mostly workers, in the area around the farms. This led to the Netherlands’ decision to slaughter on a widespread basis.’
He said the ‘precautionary decision to cull mink in Denmark on public health grounds’ was ‘consistent with the decision in the Netherlands’ and had been ‘welcomed by the animal rights organisations which would like the industry to disappear’.
The true implication of the changes in the spike protein have not yet been evaluated
However, Wood added: ‘The true implication of the changes in the spike protein have not yet been evaluated by the international scientific community and are thus unclear. It is too early to say that the change [in the spike protein] will cause either vaccines or immunity to fail.’
A spokesperson for the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe said five European countries – the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, Italy and Sweden – had so far reported Covid-19 infections in farmed mink.
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