Fears of mutated coronavirus transmission from minks to humans prompts Denmark to seek cull

Denmark's prime minister said Wednesday that the government wants to cull its entire herd of minks to minimize the risk of the animals re-transmitting a mutated form of the coronavirus to humans.

Danish government report shows mutation in the virus in some people who became infected by minks

Mink breeder Thorbjoern Jepsen holds up a mink, as police forcibly gained access to his mink farm in Gjoel, Denmark on Oct. 9. The Danish government said Wednesday it wants to cull its herd of minks after a report showed a mutation in the virus found in some people who became infected by the animals. (Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix/Associated Press)

Denmark's prime minister said Wednesday that the government wants to cull all minks on Danish farms, to minimize the risk of the animals re-transmitting a mutated form of the coronavirus to humans.

Mette Frederiksen said a report from a government agency that maps the coronavirus in Denmark has shown a mutation in the virus found in 12 people in the northern part of the country who became infected by minks. Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said half of the 783 human COVID-19 cases in northern Denmark "are related" to mink.

"It is very, very serious," Frederiksen said. "Thus, the mutated virus in minks can have devastating consequences worldwide."

Denmark is one of the world's main mink fur exporters, producing an estimated 17 million furs per year. Kopenhagen Fur, a co-operative of 1,500 Danish breeders, accounts for 40 per cent of the global mink production. Most of its exports go to China and Hong Kong.

According to government estimates, culling the country's 15 million minks could cost up to 5 billion kroner ($1 billion Cdn). National police head Thorkild Fogde said "it should happen as soon as possible."

Denmark's minister for food, Mogens Jensen, said 207 farms were now infected, up from 41 last month, and the disease has spread to all of the western peninsula of Jutland.

Last month, Denmark started culling millions of minks in the north of the country. The government has promised to compensate farmers.

The country has registered 50,530 confirmed COVID-19 infections and 729 deaths.

WHO calls for scientific investigation

The findings, which have been shared with the World Health Organization and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, were based on laboratory tests by the State Serum Institute, the Danish authority dealing with infectious diseases.

The head of WHO's emergencies program, Mike Ryan, on Friday called for full-scale scientific investigations of the "complex, complex issue" of humans — outside China — infecting mink, which in turn transmit the virus back to humans.

A total of 207 out of the 1,139 fur farms in Denmark have been infected with COVID-19, which prompted the announcement. Millions of mink will be killed as a result.

Animal welfare group Humane Society International applauded the prime minister for taking "such an essential and science-based step to protect Danish citizens," and said it hoped that losing so many mink to the coronavirus causes fur farms to get out of the business.

"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," Humane Society International-Europe spokesperson Joanna Swabe said.

Minks have also been culled in the Netherlands and Spain after infections were discovered.

With files from Reuters