COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – Denmark’s mink industry faced economic collapse after health authorities discovered a mutated coronavirus strain in the animals and people, prompting a nationwide cull and stricter lockdown measures in the north of the country.
The government said on Wednesday that it would cull all minks – up to 17 million – to prevent human contagion with a mutated coronavirus, which authorities said could be more resistant against future vaccines.
The industry association for Danish mink breeders called the move, which could cost the state more than $800 million, a “black day for Denmark”, and said the government’s decision amounted to a death knell for the country’s pelt industry.
“Of course, we must not be the cause of a new pandemic. We do not know the professional basis for this assessment and risk … but the government’s decision is a disaster for the industry and Denmark,” chairman Tage Pedersen said.
In 2019, the mink industry, which employs around 4,000 people, exported nearly $800 million worth of mink skins, totalling around 24.5 million pelts, according to Statistics Denmark.
At his family-owned mink farm west of the capital Copenhagen, 34-year-old Hans Henrik Jeppesen said he was devastated by the decision.
“This is a very, very sad situation for me and my family,” he told Reuters. Jeppesen’s 36,000 minks have not been infected, but will be culled and skinned within the next 10 days.
Some lawmakers demanded to see the evidence behind such drastic action.
“We are asking to have it (the evidence) sent over, so we can assess the technical basis,” a spokesperson for the Liberal Party told broadcaster TV2 on Wednesday.
Outbreaks at mink farms have persisted in Denmark, Europe’s largest producer and exporter of mink furs, despite repeated efforts to cull infected animals since June.
Animal rights groups welcomed the decision by the government, and called for a general ban on what they said was an “outdated” industry.
“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,” said Joanna Swabe of Humane Society International.
Municipalities in northern Denmark, home to most of the country’s mink farms, will face restrictions on movement across county lines, while restaurants and bars will be forced to close, the mayor of Vesthimmerland Municipality, Per Bach Laursen, told Reuters.
The Ministry of Health declined to comment, but the government is expected to announce a range of new measures aimed at containing the new virus strain later on Thursday.
RISK TO FUTURE VACCINES
In a report published on Wednesday, the State Serum Institute (SSI), the authority dealing with infectious diseases, said laboratory tests showed the new strain had mutations on its so-called spike protein, a part of the virus that invades and infects healthy cells.
That poses a risk to future COVID-19 vaccines, which are based on disabling the spike protein, SSI said.
Ian Jones, a virology professor at Britain’s University of Reading, said the virus would be expected to mutate in a new species.
“It must adapt to be able to use mink receptors to enter cells and so will modify the spike protein to enable this to happen efficiently,” he explained.
“The danger is that the mutated virus could then spread back into man and evade any vaccine response which would have been designed to the original, non-mutated version of the spike protein, and not the mink-adapted version.”
Authorities in Denmark said five cases of the new virus strain had been recorded on mink farms and 12 cases in humans.
James Wood, a professor of veterinary medicine at Cambridge University, said Denmark’s precautionary decision to cull was wise and consistent with action by Dutch authorities earlier in the year.
He added, however, that the true implication of the changes in the spike protein had not yet been fully assessed by scientists.
“It is too early to say that the change will cause either vaccines or immunity to fail,” he said.
(Reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard; additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London, Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by Mike Collett-White)