Millions of mink in Denmark are carrying a variant of Covid-19. Picture: REUTERS/JACOB GRONHOLT-PEDERSEN
Millions of mink in Denmark are carrying a variant of Covid-19. Picture: REUTERS/JACOB GRONHOLT-PEDERSEN

Copenhagen — Mink farms pose a serious threat to human health in the age of Covid-19, and will continue to do so even if individual mink mutations of the virus are fought back, according to Kåre Mølbak, Denmark’s top epidemiologist.

The arrival of Covid-19 in the Nordic country was a clear “game-changer” for its mink farmers, Mølbak told newspaper Politiken in an interview published on Tuesday. Maintaining the industry now “represents far too high a national health risk”, he said.

Denmark had planned to cull its entire population of mink — 17-million animals — after discovering a new strain of Covid-19 that has the potential to derail global efforts to develop a vaccine. The “cluster 5” variant carried in Danish mink led to mutations in the virus pod’s spike protein, which most vaccines target.

But this week, the planned cull was shelved after political infighting forced Denmark’s minority government to acknowledge it didn’t have parliament’s support to move ahead. There are even questions as to the legality of its order to exterminate the country’s mink population.

For now, farmers across Denmark have halted the mass slaughter, and are only putting down animals that are infected. Before the government was forced to back down, farmers had already culled about 2.5-million mink, according to broadcaster TV2.

With political agendas dominating the day, the concern now is that the scientific arguments will get drowned out. Mølbak, in his interview with Politiken, voiced his concern over the focus of lawmakers, which he suggested is misplaced.

“I think that the issue of cluster 5 has received far too much attention,” he said. Even if the cluster 5 mutation dies out, “there’d be new variants in mink that would spawn equivalent or bigger problems, a cluster 6, 7 or 8”.

Mølbak says the key question now is whether it’s reasonable to continue farming mink, given the risks.

“Our biggest concern since June has been the large reservoir that the mink provides the virus,” he said. “It’s a perfect storm. You have an animal that’s particularly receptive towards the virus and that, at the same time, is kept in large numbers, as is the case in Denmark.”

“Mink are very easily infected by the coronavirus, and once it’s there, it spreads at the speed of light,” he said. “We’ve seen how that then spreads to humans. That makes it practically impossible to handle the spread during a pandemic.”



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