Denmark Acted with Proper Urgency After Mutated Virus Spilled from Mink to Humans

A Danish legal team issued a report last week strongly criticizing Denmark’s Social Democrats and their allies after the Prime Minister and her cabinet ordered the mass killing of mink in that country in the summer of 2020. The directive came after a wave of SARS-CoV-2 infections of millions of animals at more than one-third of its 1,100 mink farms, including the emergence of a variant that spilled over to thousands of Danes and threatened to ricochet across the globe.

The voluminous report roundly criticized the government’s unilateral action, declaring it illegal. The mass cull required legislative action rather than a cabinet directive, according to the commission’s authors.

While a forensic legal review of this consequential action was appropriate, the panel may have underplayed that the viral threat to the country and to the globe was urgent and that government action was not only warranted but protective and successful. The government’s decisive work first contained the variant to Denmark and then extinguished it entirely. It was a textbook case of viral containment.

There are five known coronavirus variants that have emerged from mink farms in Europe and North America and spilled over to humans. Those are the most menacing outcomes amidst a massive worldwide SARS-CoV-2 epidemic in farmed mink that has paralleled the human COVID-19 pandemic, with outbreaks on at least 450 mink farms in 13 countries throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States. The variant that emerged in Denmark was the first of several spillover cases that later rocked France, Latvia, Poland, and the United States (Michigan), with each interspecies viral transfer threatening to launch a new phase of the pandemic.

Viral Risk Assessment and Commercial Wildlife Industries

“The mink-farming environment maximizes chances for infections and mutations,” said Jim Keen, D.V.M., Ph.D., the director of veterinary science for the Center for a Humane Economy, a former USDA infectious disease specialist, and author of a comprehensive report titled, Mink Farming & SARS-CoV-2. “If SARS-CoV-2 could design its perfect habitat, it might closely resemble a mink ranch: a highly stressed, immuno-suppressed inbred host with thousands of other mink kept in very small cages.”

Notwithstanding the Danish report’s criticism of the government’s process in issuing the cull order, there is one inescapable conclusion: Mink farms are likely the greatest ongoing global and American zoonotic viral threat to public health, even greater than the pop-up live-wildlife markets found in Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world.

As we look at infection rates across all species, it’s apparent that humans and the American mink have proved the most vulnerable to the virus by a long shot — with more than 15 million people and 21 million captive mink perishing directly from the virus or containment strategies. While there is concern about the vulnerability of white-tailed deer and possibly other animal species to the onset of the virus, there is no evidence of viral transfer from these other species to people, as proven with mink.

When the SARS-CoV-2 virus got its launch at the end of 2019, the international community demanded that China shutter its live-wildlife markets, where the virus was thought to have originated. That nation’s leaders did take that action, and it was the right move. A live-wildlife market had spawned the first SARS in 2002, and there had been concern that the re-establishment of live-wildlife markets would spawn yet one more emerging zoonotic disease.

Without any democratic decision-making norms, China was not, of course, bound by democratic protocols. It was able to shut down a multi-billion-dollar industry overnight without legislative action, judicial review. There was, to be sure, no post-mortem review of the decision by an outside panel of legal experts, as happened in Denmark.

Other European Countries Take Action, as the U.S. Dithers

Based on legitimate concerns about public health and animal welfare, the Netherlands, the fourth-largest producer in the world, shuttered its mink industry some months after Denmark took action, banning fur farming in March 2021. Bulgaria and Italy just recently closed their mink farms. More than 15 European nations have banned mink farming, with even Poland, the world’s third-largest producer, signaling its support for a EU-wide ban on fur farming.

In North America, British Columbia closed mink farms there, to howls of protest from mink farmers. It is apparent that none of these political leaders in these far-flung jurisdictions relished the idea of an abrupt shutdown of their mink industries, but each one recognized that inaction was an unacceptable response given the documented threats that mink farms pose. Given that Denmark had the world’s biggest mink population, with 17 million captive mink clustered on more than 1,000 farms in the northern region of Jutland, the viral risks were perhaps greater there than anywhere else in the world, further justifying its decisive crisis response.

The United States, by comparison, has been especially derelict in confronting the threat posed by mink farming.

The United States, by comparison, has been especially derelict in confronting the threat posed by mink farming. Neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the USDA has imposed any meaningful biosecurity in place at U.S. mink farms. Unlike Europe, we have no active or mandatory COVID-19 surveillance or testing of mink farms or farmers by federal (CDC, USDA) or state agencies. U.S. mink farms remain unregulated by the states or federal government. 

Perhaps what’s most needed is a report in the United States that calls out the government for doing next to nothing in the face of a zoonotic disease crisis. In April, National Geographic, the Detroit Free Press, and then the New York Times reported that the CDC delayed by a year the reporting of mink-to-human SARS-CoV-2 spillover event in western Michigan in late 2020. Not even people in the immediate impact zone had been alerted. And let’s remember that zoonotic diseases start with a single transmission, and then have the potential to die out or spiral out of control. In the Michigan mink farm case, U.S. regulatory agencies underplayed, downplayed, or ignored the emergence of a new variant that had the potential to infect millions of people in our country.

It’s also well-documented that farmed mink have repeatedly escaped captivity. Continued mink farming risks enabling an ineradicable reservoir of SARS-CoV-2 in North American wildlife, just as rabies, plague, Chronic Wasting Disease, and brucellosis have taken permanent hold in our native wildlife populations.  That was a major motivator for Bulgaria’s decision to halt mink farming there, with authorities recognizing the American mink as an invasive species detrimental to natural riverine ecosystems, biodiversity, and the country’s own imperiled and indigenous wild mink.

Yes, Denmark took decisive action. Perhaps it should have debated the issue in its legislative assembly. But it was an unfolding crisis with stakes that could not have been higher for the health of humanity, to say nothing of the health of millions of Danes who lived not far from the mink farms. If you don’t start by taking care of your own citizens, then what good is any government? 

During the last 100 years, wars and pandemics have accounted for the greatest pulses in human misery and death. Deliberation and rational decision-making should of course drive decisions when crises erupt.  But there’s nothing noble or judicious about delay, hedging, and inaction in the face of a rapidly spreading and potentially deadly novel virus jumping the species barrier and putting hundreds of millions of people and the functioning of the global economy at risk.

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