The current pandemic has now infected over 48 million people and killed 1.2 million worldwide; however, humans are not the only ones vulnerable to this virus. So far, there have been dogs, domestic cats, and even lions and tigers that have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Fortunately, these animals do not pose a threat to people because it is not possible for people to get infected by these species. Nevertheless, this doesn’t apply to all species of animals. For example, the entire family to which minks belong, Mustelidae, have a record of being infected with the flu, and being able to transmit it to people. Recently, six countries have reported coronavirus infections in their mink farms, specifically in the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Sweden, Italy, and the US. According to a BBC article, minks are susceptible to respiratory diseases and suffer before succumbing to the virus (Briggs 2020).
A New Threat
Under normal circumstances, these farms would continue operation and cull any infected populations. However, the potential threat of this event is larger than it seems: the coronavirus can be transmitted from minks to people. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that 12 people in Denmark were carrying a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, currently referred to as “cluster 5.” Scientists have identified that this new variant contains a set of mutations, or changes that have not been observed previously. While the effects of these changes on the virus’s deadliness are not clear, preliminary research shows that for both minks and humans, this new “cluster 5” variant “has moderately decreased sensitivity to neutralizing antibodies” (“SARS-CoV-2 mink-associated variant strain – Denmark,” 2020).
Since this discovery, the government of Denmark, namely Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, has attempted to pass an emergency law that would cull all existing mink populations in the country, in fears that the mutation, and any other potential ones in the future, could jeopardize the development of vaccines in the near future. However, this action was not met without opposition. Jakob Ellemann-Jensen, leader of Denmark’s largest opposition party, suggested that there were doubts surrounding the scientific viability of killing 17 million minks, and whether it would effectively eliminate the threat (Kevany and Carstensen 2020). Furthermore, there were also questions regarding the owners of these farms, who would effectively lose their livelihoods.
Should We Take The Chances?
While it is indeed unfortunate that these farmers would be losing their livelihoods, culling minks also presents many positives. Apart from offering a potential solution to the current risks of SARS-CoV-2 mutations, mink farming has been slowly phased out of many European countries, including the Netherlands, whose goal of eliminating mink farming has been pulled from its initial goal of 2024 all the way to 2021. As Benny Andersson, CEO of Swedish animal rights organization “Djurens Rätt” has stated:
“This is a tiny sector, we could easily live without it, given the risk of compromising a vaccine. We should be shutting down mink farms and culling all the animals. Sick animals are not being treated which is another mink welfare issue” (Kevany and Carstensen 2020).
In the end, the choice is up to these nations’ leaders; however, if the threat of a mutated SARS-CoV-2 is the slightest bit plausible, it might be safer not to take any chances, and at the same time, stop the long-standing mistreatment of minks worldwide.