Denmark has dropped plans to forcibly cull millions of farmed mink due to fears that a mutated form of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, was moving from the animals to humans, posing a public health risk and potentially jeopardizing the effectiveness of any future vaccine.
The Danish government will no longer attempt to pass emergency legislation to legally mandate the destruction of up to 17 million mink across more than 1,000 farms. Instead, it will only “recommend” that farmers kill all their mink.
“It is a mistake. It is a regrettable mistake,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told parliament on Tuesday after admitting that the government overstepped its jurisdiction, which allows it the legal authority only to cull infected mink or herds within a safety radius. “Even if we were in a rush, it should have been completely clear to us that new legislation was required, and it was not. I apologize for that.”
Denmark’s mink cull has been continuing apace for several weeks, with 2.9 million animals from both infected and non-infected farms already destroyed. The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration reported that the cull is complete on 116 farms and “the work continues,” though some farmers have reportedly refused to cooperate, citing the loss of their incomes. (The government has promised to compensate them per skin, but details are scant.)
“We have 65,000 mink. In the coming week all will be put down,” Martin From, who farms the animals, which are related to ermines, weasels and ferrets, in rural Funen and has been flying the Danish flag at half mast in his garden, told BBC News. “It all seems very unjust.”
The political backlash, too, has been swift, with critics questioning if the mutation is dangerous.
“Massive doubts over whether this cull is properly scientifically based [have] come to light now,” Jakob Ellemann-Jensen, leader of Denmark’s largest opposition party, Venstre, told the Guardian. “At the same time the government is taking away the livelihood of a large number of people without actually having the legal rights to do so.”
But by Tuesday, coronavirus outbreaks had been reported on 237 farms in Jutland. Twelve humans have contracted the so-called “cluster 5” variant of SARS-CoV-2 found in the Danish mink. While the implications of the identified changes in this variant remain unclear, they were enough to prompt Kare Molbak, the head of the government-run State Serum Institute, to call the disease a “game changer” for mink farmers.
Maintaining the industry now “represents far too high a national health risk,” he told newspaper Politiken in an interview published Tuesday. Molbak had previously noted that the mutation shows a weak reaction to antibodies.
Mike Ryan, head of the World Health Organization’s emergencies program, has urged a full-scale scientific investigation of the “complex, complex issue” of people outside China infecting mink that are, in turn, spreading the virus back to humans.
Coronavirus-bearing mink are not just a problem for Denmark. In neighboring Sweden, 10 of the country’s 40 or so mink farms have identified positive cases. And over the summer, tens of thousands of mink in the Netherlands, Spain and Utah in the United States were culled after animals at multiple farms contracted Covid-19 from handlers who had tested positive. Just Poland and Finland are among the outliers whose mink farms have so far remained coronavirus-free.
Fur Commission U.S.A., a trade group that represents mink farmers in the United States, says it’s working with other industry stakeholders to develop a vaccine, “with testing to being shortly.” It pointed to comments by World Health Organization chief scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, who said in June that coronavirus mutations were not expected to effect vaccine efficacy.
“Animal welfare is a farmer’s entire livelihood,” Michael Whelan, executive director of Fur Commission U.S.A., said in a statement. “We are taking steps to protect workers and animals from this virus. Animal-rights campaigners are now shamelessly trying to exploit a tragic situation to once again push their misguided political agenda.”
But animal-rights groups insist that the wildfire spread of Covid-19 among captive mink is indicative of larger problems with farming animals in cramped, high-stress and unsanitary conditions that cannot help but breed disease.
“Although the death of millions of mink—whether culled for Covid-19 or killed for fur—is an animal welfare tragedy, fur farmers will now have a clear opportunity to pivot away from this cruel and dying industry and choose a more humane and sustainable livelihood instead,” Joanna Swabe, senior director of public affairs at Humane Society International and Europe, said in a statement. “HSI urges the Danish government to assist fur farmers to transition to other activities. There has never been a more compelling time for Denmark to shut down the sick fur industry for good.”