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More Mink Mutations Found Outside of Denmark

Denmark isn’t the only country dealing with a mink-related coronavirus mutations in humans.

Seven other countries—the Netherlands, South Africa, Switzerland, the Faroe Islands, Russia, the United States and Ireland—have reported variants of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, according to scientists who uploaded virus sequencing and variant data to Gisaid, a global initiative that provides open access to genomic sequencing information of influenza and Sars-CoV-2 viruses.

“We knew there were these mink variants…but we only had about 20 genomes of each, which is very few,” Francois Balloux, Genetics Institute director at University College London, told the Guardian last week. “Then last week the Danes uploaded 6,000 genome sequences and with those we were able to identify 300 or more of the mink variant Y453F in viruses having infected humans in Denmark.”

The discovery of the so-called “cluster 5” variant of SARS-CoV-2 in 12 people in Denmark over the summer has resulted in widespread culls that have shaken the fur industry, led to the planned closure of the world’s biggest fur auction house and thrown the future of the trade into question. The Danish government had originally called for the destruction of all of the country’s mink, which number between 15 million and 17 million, but rescinded the order this month after admitting it had no legal basis.

Denmark is the second largest producer of mink fur after China, exporting some 670 million euros ($792 million) in pelts annually. Authorities say all 288 infected herds have been eradicated and that roughly 10 million animals, including mink from farms where no infection was detected, have been killed to date.

The issue has spiraled into a political scandal as farmers railed against the loss of their livelihoods and opponents of the minority Social Democratic government warned that Denmark was “gambling” with democracy. Agriculture Minister Mogens Jensen resigned last week amid the brouhaha. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, who says her administration is preparing to ban mink farming until 2022, has faced calls to follow suit. Protests have also flared up in the cities of Aalborg and Aarhus.

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How the mutation will impact current vaccine efforts—if at all—remains unclear. A note on Gisaid says that the mutation may have a “modest effect” on interactions between the host receptor and antibodies but, given the previous circulation of viruses with these mutations in humans, they are “not expected to have substantial impact on Covid-19 epidemiology and disease.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, previously said that the mutation detected in Denmark’s mink “probably” won’t jeopardize vaccines that are in development, though it could complicate treatments such as monoclonal antibodies, laboratory-engineered proteins that enhance or mimic the immune system’s ability to fight viruses.

Maria van Kerkhove, Covid-19 technical lead for the World Health Organization, told a briefing in Geneva earlier this month that though transmission of the virus between animals and humans is a concern, “mutations [in viruses] are normal [and] these type of changes in the virus are something we have been tracking since the beginning.” The agency, she said, is looking at biosecurity around mink farms across the globe to prevent further “spillover events.”

Balloux told the Guardian, however, that the spread of the mutation to other nations suggests a need to cull all farmed mink. “A bigger host reservoir means more infections in humans,” he said. “The main point here, I think, is that although the mutation might not be scary, there is still very good reason to get rid of the mink reservoir. We just don’t need it.”

Kopenhagen Fur and Saga Furs did not respond to requests for comment.

While fur continues to do brisk business in China and Russia, the material has been losing favor in the western part of the world. Real fur items stocked by luxury brands on their U.S. sites have declined 7 percent year over year and are “expected to continue to wane,” according to Kayla Marci, market analysis at retail intelligence platform Edited. High-end brands in the United Kingdom are carrying 14 percent fewer real fur items online versus last year, a “more prominent decline than the U.S., suggesting preparation for new rules enforced post-Brexit,” Marci added, noting that the British government is considering outlawing all imports of wild animal fur and fur-containing clothing after the United Kingdom exits the European Union.

Luxury stalwarts 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, have dropped fur in recent years. In September, Nordstrom followed the lead of department-store rivals Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s in phasing out the sales of fur and exotic animal-skin merchandise.

But Mark Oaten, CEO of the International Fur Federation, which represents the global fur industry, hit back at suggestions that fur is on its way out.

“Actions speak louder than words: there are already strong signs that sales are robust in Asia and early indications show mink prices have increased by up to 30 percent,” he said in a statement. “As the recent Bain report made clear, the luxury market for fashion is booming in China. Rumours of fur’s demise from the usual doubters and doomsters are wild exaggerations.”