Denmark plans to cull millions of mink across more than 1,000 farms after finding a mutated form of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, that can spread to humans and potentially undermine the efficacy of a future vaccine.
Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen, speaking at a press conference Wednesday, said 12 people have already been infected with the mutated virus and the mink are now deemed a public health risk.
“We have a great responsibility toward our own population, but with the mutation that has now been found, we have an even greater responsibility for the rest of the world as well,” Frederiksen said. “The mutated virus in mink may pose a risk to the effectiveness of a future vaccine [and it] risks being spread from Denmark to other countries.”
Denmark, one of the world’s largest producers of mink fur, raises between 15 million to 17 million of the animals for export markets such as China and Hong Kong, where fur continues to do brisk trade despite the growing anti-fur zeitgeist in the West. According to the latest figures from the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, a total of 207 out of the country’s 1,139 fur farms have confirmed Covid-19 infections.
The findings, which were based on laboratory tests by Danish research center State Serum Institute, have been shared with the World Health Organization and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Kare Molbak, a director at the institute, said the worst-case scenario would be “a new pandemic, starting all over again out of Denmark.”
Mike Ryan, head of the World Health Organization’s emergencies program, has called for a full-fledged scientific investigation of the “complex, complex issue” of people outside China infecting mink that are, in turn, transmitting the virus back to humans.
Tens of thousands of farmed mink in the Netherlands, Spain and Utah in the United States were killed over the summer after animals at multiple locations contracted Covid-19 from sickened handlers, a phenomenon scientists have described as “zoonosis in reverse” because viruses usually jump from animals to humans rather than the other way around.
With the pandemic at full throttle, animal-rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Humane Society International have tried to draw a line between raising of animals for skins and furs and the risk of future infectious diseases. Animals bred in captivity are often kept in cramped, unsanitary and high-stress conditions, they say, creating a breeding ground for disease.
“Denmark is one of the largest fur producers on the planet, so a total shut down of all Danish mink fur farms amidst spiraling Covid-19 infections, is a significant development,” Joanna Swabe, senior director of public affairs at Humane Society International and Europe, said in a statement. “Although not a ban on fur farming, this move signals the end of suffering for millions of animals confined to small wire cages on Danish fur farms solely for the purposes of trivial fur fashion that no one needs.”
The news may accelerate the fashion industry’s pivot away from fur, which stemmed from burgeoning animal-welfare concerns. Fur was already shedding its luxury cachet, with brands such as as Chanel, Burberry, Gucci, Maje owner SMCP, Michael Kors, Prada and Versace, along with high-end e-tailers Farfetch and Yoox Net-a-Porter, dropping the material in recent years. In September, Nordstrom joined department-store rivals Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s in phasing out the sales of fur and exotic animal-skin merchandise. More broadly, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York have proposed or passed bans on selling fur.
Fur producers are also facing legislative pressure globally. The U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is reportedly considering nixing fur sales, two decades after Britain became the first country in Europe to ban fur farming. In September, France declared it will end mink fur farming and require the country’s remaining four fur farms to cease operations no later than 2025. That same month, Poland announced a bill to outlaw fur after undercover footage from its largest fur farm appeared to show “cannibalism, aggression, self-aggression, open wounds and paralysis of minks’ limbs,” according to animal-rights campaigners.
Roughly 100 million fur-bearing animals such as rabbits, foxes, chinchilla and mink are killed each year for their hides, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Some 85 percent originate from fur factory farms, while the rest are trapped in the wild, it noted.