Will minks be the ultimate pandemic pitfall?
Fur-get about it.
Recent headlines that Denmark livestock officials have made the difficult call to cull some 17 million minks over fears of COVID-19 transmission has people fretting over what that could mean for humans — never mind the poor weasels.
Prior to their planned decimation, outbreaks of the coronavirus among mink populations in Europe as well as the US were reported as far back as April, prompting the Netherlands to shut down the mink fur industry entirely in June.
Since then, the US has reported its own mink-based outbreaks, notably in Utah, Wisconsin and Michigan, where thousands of the semiaquatic mammals have died as a result of the illness. In a statement released in August, the US Department of Agriculture said mink farms in Utah had endured “deaths in numbers they’d never seen before,” a spokesperson told Science at the time. At the same time, several staffers also tested positive for COVID-19, but which species became sick first has yet to be determined.
By late October, at least 8,000 US-based minks have succumbed to the coronavirus, according to Fur Commission USA.
Experts have yet to establish a clear viral pathway between minks and their handlers. National Geographic journalist Dina Fine Maron reported in August that genetic tests on sickened farmworkers in the Netherlands revealed results that were unique to the overall Dutch population with the coronavirus, leading scientists to believe that particular mutation of SARS-CoV-2 had come from the mink. While there have been some clear incidents of humans infecting animals, such as dogs and big cats at zoos, US officials say there isn’t enough science to establish whether minks could create a widespread outbreak — and aren’t planning to preemptively euthanize any minks.
“There is currently no evidence that animals, including mink, play a significant role in spreading the virus to humans,” the USDA wrote in its August announcement. “Based on the limited information available to date, the risk of animals spreading SARS-CoV-2 to people is considered to be low.”
The USDA as well as the Fur Commission could not be reached for updated comments.
Meanwhile, mink fur-producing state Wisconsin is currently dealing with some of the highest coronavirus case rates the country has seen yet.