No sign of COVID-19 on Canada’s mink farms, but growers taking no chances

© Provided by National Post Minks at farmer Stig Sørensen's estate where all minks must be culled due to a government order on November 7, 2020 in Bording, Denmark. PHOTO BY OLE JENSEN/GETTY IMAGES.

Canadian mink farms are doubling down on their biosecurity protections as minks are showing signs of COVID-19 infection in the Netherlands, the U.S., Spain and Denmark.

“There’s always certain biosecurity protections on the farms,” said Alan Herscovici, a fur industry spokesman. “When the news came out a bit over a month ago from Europe, that gave our people lead time and they brought in enhanced biosecurity.”

Some of the biosecurity measures include full personal protective equipment (PPE) and increased hand-washing for farm staff, as well as restrictions on who can be on the farms.

In early November, the Danish government ordered a massive cull of the country’s 17 million minks, which are farmed for their pelts, to head off infection carrying over to the human population.

At present, Canada has approximately 70 mink farms, which contain less than 2 million mink at any given time — a fraction of the 17 million mink in Denmark. The highest concentration of those farms is in Ontario and Nova Scotia, based on the latest figures.

“There are no known cases of COVID-19 on mink farms in Ontario or Canada,” the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs said via an email. “OMAFRA, the Ministry of Health and the Ontario Fur Breeders Association are actively engaged in planning and preparedness activities and have developed a framework to support a coordinated response in the event of a detection.”

Matthew Moses, a Nova Scotia mink farmer and the president of the Canada Mink Breeders Association, has been impressed by the rapid uptake of the increased safety measures by Canadian farmers.

“Farmers traditionally are not great at changing their practices but I’ve cold-called a number of farms just to emphasize the importance of this,” Moses said. “It’s been overwhelming just how serious Canadian farmers are taking this.”

Moses has anywhere from 2,000 to 20,000 mink on his farm depending on the time of year. Over the last 10 years, Canadian mink farming went into a steep decline as European and Asian fur producers swamped the market. Nationwide, the number of mink farms dropped from 240 in 2010 before finally stabilizing around 70 in recent years.

While mink farmers such as Moses are dealing with the threat of COVID infection on their farms, they are also aware of public fears in Canada regarding infected mink.

“There’s a fear factor,” said Moses. “People don’t necessarily understand the situation and they feel it may pose a great risk. Certainly, those of us in the industry know we are in a very, very drastically different situation here than what there is in Denmark.”

In Canada, mink farming is a far smaller industry than in Denmark.

“In Denmark you have a very high concentration of production in a very small area,” said Herscovici. “They producing over 17 million pelts a year in an area probably not much bigger than Vancouver Island.”

The risk of minks spreading the virus is much more contained in Canada with the 70-odd farms spread out across the country, far from major city centres. In the event of positive COVID tests in a Canadian mink farm, the chief veterinary officer in the province would be immediately contacted.

“In the case where we do have farms that our positive, we would handle it much like we do other illnesses where we quarantine the farm and then monitor the animals for signs of illness and treat them accordingly,” said Moses.

The danger of SARS-CoV-2 in minks

There are some who say that fears over mink acting as bats and pangolins did — incubating the SARS-CoV-2 virus, reshuffling its genetic material and infecting humans — might be warranted, but not for the same reasons that caused a massive reactionary cull of mink in Denmark. The move came after scientists at the Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen tracked a new mutation in some of the outbreaks cropping up on the country’s mink farms.

“Mutation happens all the time, but once in a while these mutations happen in the spike protein,” Anders Fomsgaard, SSI’s head of virus research, told the BBC. “We are a little nervous once we see mutations that change amino acids and the shape of this protein.”

The mutations in the “Cluster 5” area of the virus may impact certain vaccines in development that target that spike protein. Twelve people are known to have caught the mutated version of the virus in Denmark.

a tractor in front of a truck:  Culled mink transported for burial, where they are encapsulated in layers of calcium to prevent the virus to spread from the animals, at the military airport in Karup, Jutland, Denmark, on November 8, 2020. Photo by BO AMSTRUP/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images.Culled mink transported for burial, where they are encapsulated in layers of calcium to prevent the virus to spread from the animals, at the military airport in Karup, Jutland, Denmark, on November 8, 2020. Photo by BO AMSTRUP/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images.

The cull has now stalled as lawmakers fight back against the order. On Nov. 10, the government apologized for the rash decision, made without legal jurisdiction.

“It is a mistake. It is a regrettable mistake,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said to parliament.

Although the decision may have been rushed, experts are quick to point out that there is inherent danger in COVID-19 spreading uncontrolled through mink population, just not necessarily with regard to the Cluster 5 mutation.

“The decision by Danish authorities to cull its mink population is the right one, but not necessarily for the reasons given,” tweeted Kristian Andersen, an immunologist and infectious diseases expert.
One of the main concerns is that COVID-19 infections in mink may cause the virus to jump to other mammalian hosts, the way pangolins and bats initially spread the virus to humans, Andersen added.  Those hosts could include house pets like cats and dogs, a possibility that the CDC is tracking closely.