Unproven, Untested Vaccination Program on Mink Farms Will Not Be Feasible or Effective Against an Evolving Virus
(Washington, D.C.) — Today, the Center for a Humane Economy, Animal Wellness Action, and other partnering organizations unveiled a 96-page comprehensive scientific report detailing risks posed by mink farms to public health, native wildlife populations, and U.S. ecosystems and called on the United States, the European Union and other regions of the world to forbid mink farming. The Center is sending the report, “Mink Farming & SARS-CoV-2,” to all federal lawmakers and also to state legislative and regulatory leaders in the top mink-farming states of Wisconsin, Utah, Oregon, Idaho, Minnesota, and Michigan and urged them to support efforts to immediately wind down mink farming.
At least 431 outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2 occurred on mink farms in Europe and North America including at least 18 U.S. outbreaks in Michigan, Utah, Wisconsin, and Oregon. In May and June 2021, new mink farm outbreaks occurred in Spain (six farms), Latvia, and British Columbia, Canada. “Unless we shutter mink farms, new outbreaks on mink farms and transmission of the virus to people and wild mink in the U.S are a near certainty,” according to Dr. Jim Keen, D.V.M, Ph.D. (epidemiology), director of veterinary science for the Center for a Humane Economy, a global expert on animal-borne infectious diseases, and author of the report.
Last week, Poland, the world’s third largest mink producer with 770 farms, announced it supports a European Union ban on fur farming. With that declaration, the agriculture ministers of the top three EU mink-producing countries — Denmark, the Netherlands, and Poland — all agreed to the proposal to ban fur and mink farming in their countries. Pre-COVID-19, these three countries produced about 27 million of the 30 million (~90%) of EU mink pelts. In 2020, Denmark and the Netherlands killed more than 20 million of the furbearing carnivores after mass outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2 at mink farms on the continent.
Up to a quarter of U.S. mink farms have seen outbreaks of the virus, with nearly half of Utah farms infected. Last week, in rising concern about the unique susceptibility of captive mink to SARS-CoV-2, a bipartisan group of U.S. House lawmakers introduced legislation to ban U.S.-based mink farming. The bill, H.R. 4310, the Minks in Narrowly Kept Spaces Are Superspreaders Act (MINKS Act), was introduced by House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Nancy Mace, R-S.C., Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, Michael McCaul, R-Texas, Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., D-Fla., Lance Gooden, R-Texas, Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, and David Valadao, R-Calif. It is the first-ever national legislation to ban mink farming.
“If SARS-CoV-2 could design its perfect habitat, it might closely resemble a mink ranch: a stressed, immuno-suppressed inbred host with thousands of other mink kept in very small cages,” noted Dr. James Keen, who has deployed multiple times to zoonotic disease outbreaks when he worked as a senior scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “This environment maximizes chances for infections and mutations.”
According to the report from Dr. Keen, mink pose unique public health risks from SARS-CoV-2: 1) Mink are the only animals beside people that transmit, become sick, and die in large numbers from COVID-19; 2) Mink are the only animals besides people that transmit the COVID-19 virus back to people often in mutated form. Mink farmers, their families and their communities are at greatest risk; 3) Mink are the only animal with a large potential wild animal reservoir for COVID (i.e. the millions of wild or feral mink in the Northern hemisphere, some of which have already been infected; 4) Mink are a top candidate as the “missing link” between bats which most scientists believe to be the original source of COVID, and people according to the World Health Organization; 5) Mink are a proven source of multiple novel virus variants that may compromise human vaccine effectiveness or increase human virus virulence or transmissibility; 6) U.S. mink veterinary vaccines against COVID-19, which are still in development, are no panacea and may even be detrimental to control of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Major European mink-farming nations have recognized that vaccinations are an insufficient response to the problems spawned by mink farms,” added Dr. Keen. “Vaccination programs are costly, time-consuming, and unproven for an industry that is failing economically. With an ever-mutating set of viruses, and an industry without the resources to execute the program effectively, vaccination programs are very unlikely to keep up with the changes in the structure virus.”
Kept in extreme confinement, bred for various color phases of their fur, these solitary semi-aquatic wild animals live in small wire cages and are highly stressed, making them even more vulnerable to the onset of disease. The footage from an investigation in Poland by the animal welfare group Open Cages is horrifying, providing vivid evidence of aggression and cannibalism and showing why these animals cannot be safely kept in extreme confinement. “It’s not a matter of improving animal husbandry – these wild animals simply cannot be safely and humanely housed in cages on any meaningful commercial scale,” said Scott Beckstead, who grew up on an Idaho mink farm and is now director of campaigns for the Center for a Humane Economy.
“The factory farming of mink threatens public health, especially as we continue fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who also chairs the appropriations subcommittee that overseeing funding for a large portion of U.S. medical research. “The evidence is clear: mink operations can incubate and spread new COVID-19 variants and pose a unique threat of extending the pandemic. At the same time, with virtually no domestic market, the U.S. mink industry has been in steady decline for years. Now is the time for this legislation to become law, and I am urging all of my colleagues to support this bipartisan effort.”
“The farming of Mink used for fur production is inhumane,” Congresswoman Mace said. “This practice is not only an animal welfare concern, but a public health one too. America has suffered enough throughout this pandemic, and there is no need to continue an abusive animal practice that puts American’s health at risk through the mink’s high susceptibility to COVID-19.”
“The mink farms in the United States,” added Wayne Pacelle, president of the Center for a Humane Economy, “might be best described as viral time bombs planted in dozens of locations in our country, with negligible upside commerce but potentially momentous downside economic consequences.”