Even though mink are more susceptible to COVID-19 than any other non-human mammal, and hundreds of thousands of mink have been infected by the virus at these factory farms from Lithuania to Spain to Michigan to Utah, American political leaders and scientists are treating mink farming with the same sort of inattention that they gave live-wildlife markets from 2002 to 2020. Only the global hopscotching of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the illness, deaths, and business shutdowns that came with it, prompted world leaders to act to contain a pandemic that threatened global security more so than any other crisis since World War II.
Animal advocates shouted from rooftops, published books and academic papers, and remonstrated public officials about dangerous animal-use practices after the SARS-CoV-1 outbreak was first identified in Guangdong, China on 16 November 2002, ultimately infecting 8,000 people from 29 different countries, with 774 deaths.
In the wake of SARS-CoV-1, there was no sustained policy action in China or the United States to stem the problem of live-wildlife markets. In fact, China’s government promoted live-wildlife markets as a jobs plan, and the industry developed a multi-billion-dollar commercial footprint, with street vendors offering up such a diversity of species that a modern-day Noah could fill up his ark with creatures offered for sale at these bazaars. The open-air butchering of stressed and cowering wildlife, offered up for human consumption, provided a perfect mixing bowl for zoonotic diseases and a gathering place for unwitting new hosts.
Now a year after the outbreak began in the U.S., we should recognize the inattention to live-wildlife markets on a global scale as a moral and political failure. SARS-CoV-2 has infected well more than 100 million people and killed more than 2.2 million. It’s the biggest world event, when it comes to death and economic disruption, of any recent generation.
Senators John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Representatives Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Fred Upton, R-Mich., have rightly introduced the Preventing Future Pandemics Act, S. 37 and H.R. 151, to stem other zoonotic diseases that may re-emerge in live-wildlife markets. Still though, the President and the top-tier of our national leadership are not talking up this provision and promising to include it in the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. We hear more talk of PPP loans, $1,400 payments to Americans, billions for vaccine development. But barely a whisper about live-wildlife markets, where all this began.
How are we so short-sighted, even as we know that two-thirds of diseases that afflict humans started in animals and then jumped the species barrier?
Ignoring the mink farms in our midst
We seem ready to ignore a different kind of threat — one more form of systemic mistreatment of animals — staring us right in the face. As so many health officials and political leaders properly warn us about social distancing, keeping the Super Bowl parties to include family only, wearing masks, and getting in the queue for vaccines, we hear not a peep about shuttering mink farms from leading authorities at CDC or USDA or the governors in states that house these facilities. Even the world’s most famous truth-teller on COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has been silent about the threat posed by the virus-prone mustelids raised by the millions on U.S. mink farms.
When it comes to mink farms, and the pronouncements of American political and scientific elites, it’s been crickets.
Contrast that with Europe, where scientists have proved that mink can transmit the SARS-CoV-2 virus to people. There, presidents, prime ministers, and chief scientists have not just been sounding the alarm, they have been acting. Authorities across the continent have been ordering mass killing of mink. They have done so for two reasons: 1) to prevent mink farms from becoming super-spreaders of the virus, and 2) to prevent the reassembling of DNA that could render the newly developed vaccines less effective or even impotent.
Let’s review the facts about the global response and determine if there’s been a moral failure here in the United States.
- Denmark killed all 17 million mink in the country, over the objections of the country’s powerful mink-farming lobby. There are 1150 farms in the country of five million people, and despite that powerful political presence, leaders there knew they had to act to prevent a gathering viral storm.
- The Netherlands, the world’s fourth largest mink producer, ordered the killing of more than three million mink and made the shutdown of mink farms permanent. Data from Europe, as detailed in this paper in Science, demonstrate that mink can transmit the virus to people, with 68 percent of mink farm workers and people associated with them contracting the virus at mink farms in the Netherlands.
- Sweden discovered outbreaks at 13 of 40 mink farms, and stopped all breeding of new animals on its mink farms through the end of 2021, as a start. There have been outbreaks of the virus on mink farms in France, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, and Spain. In short, just about wherever there are mink farms, there have been outbreaks.
- In the U.S. four of the top five mink-producing states have had infections. The state of Utah was very late in disclosing the death of one mink farm worker from COVID-19, and Oregon hasn’t disclosed the locations of the infected farms, even though wild mink have been infected, too.
With gross revenues dropping from $291 million in 2012 to $59 million in 2019 (before the virus) — and total annual production at 2.7 million mink — the U.S. mink industry does not bring substantial economic benefits that warrant these risks to human health concerns. Because Americans and Europeans buy so little mink these days, U.S. producers sell their pelts to China, meaning that U.S. communities face the threat of viral transmission to produce a luxury product for a tiny sliver of the Chinese population.
No more delays by Congress and other scientific and political leaders
The mink farms in the United States are a set of viral time bombs planted in dozens of locations in our country, and it’s time for political leaders, the CDC, and the USDA to address the matter with urgency and intentionality.
If the COVID-19 virus got its launch at a live-wildlife market in China, then it may be the mistreatment of animals on mink farms that extend the duration of the pandemic. How many trillions of dollars would it cost us if mink farms were the key factor in extending the life of the pandemic for six more months, or even a year?
Animal Wellness Action is calling on the Congress and the USDA to shut down mink farms and compensate the farmers for their losses. This is a dying industry already, so it does not constitute an act of political courage to order these producers to take an exit ramp. In the process, we’d shut down the biggest zoonotic disease threat in our midst.