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Is a dangerous new strain of coronavirus circulating in the mink?

By Graham Lawton

Denmark’s officials plan to kill all mink in the country’s fur farms to help curb the spread of a coronavirus mutation

Henning Bagger / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

The Danish government ordered the slaughter of all mink bred in the country after a mutated form of the coronavirus was discovered in the animals. It has already spread to humans.

What do we know about the situation in Denmark?

According to a report by the Danish newspaper Berlingske, 207 mink farms have seen infections with coronavirus. Authorities have failed to contain the virus and all 17 million minks in Denmark are now being killed, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said at a November 5 press conference. Denmark has the world’s largest mink industry.

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The Danish Prime Minister described the mutated virus as “a serious risk to public health and a vaccine development”. Health Minister Magnus Heunicke told the press conference, however, that there are still no signs that the mutated virus is causing more serious symptoms of Covid-19.

Some areas of northern Jutland – the region of Denmark that connects to mainland Europe – are being isolated to stop the virus from spreading to humans. Frederiksen said a “mutated” virus was identified on five farms and infected 12 people with it.

What kind of mutant?

The State Serum Institute issued a statement (in Danish) confirming that several mutant viruses have been isolated from mink and that seven of them have mutations in the spike protein that enables the virus to enter cells and are important for immune response are an important target for vaccines.

One of these viruses has four mutations in its spike protein, and laboratory tests found that it is less inhibited by antibodies from people infected with the coronavirus. This could theoretically make a vaccine less effective. But the virus itself isn’t any more dangerous or contagious. According to a Google translation, the statement concludes that as a citizen, there is nothing to worry about.

Can Mink Really Catch the Coronavirus?

Yes. There are already scientific reports that mink is caught by humans in the Netherlands. And in June, more than 90,000 minks were killed in Aragon, Spain, after the virus was discovered in fur farms.

Can mink pass it on to people?

Yes. One of these reports from the Netherlands is that at least one worker on a mink farm caught the virus from the animals. The worker showed only mild respiratory disease.

What do scientists say?

Francois Balloux, Professor of Genetics at University College London (UCL), took to Twitter to describe the report as “very problematic”. He said his colleague Lucy van Dorp from UCL has already documented numerous coronavirus mutants that appear repeatedly in mink and none of which are of any concern to humans. To claim that this mutant could be resistant to a vaccine was “idiotic,” he said. Such mutations could appear in humans once we have a vaccine, but not appear in the mink, he said.

Other scientists agreed with his views. James Wood of Cambridge University said he understands that the mutation is due to the spike protein that the virus uses to enter cells and that induces an antibody response. “However, the actual effects of the changes in the spike protein have not yet been assessed by the international scientific community and are therefore unclear. It’s too early to say the change will cause either vaccines or immunity to fail, ”he said in a statement.

Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading in the UK, said it was not surprising that the virus had mutated as it had to adapt to minks. Denmark’s precautionary measures would make the new virus less likely to spread widely in humans, he said in a statement.

Is the virus likely to spread to other animals?

Yes very. More than 60 species of mammals are known to be definitely or likely to be susceptible, from gorillas and chimpanzees to foxes, yaks, giant pandas, and koalas. Even some whales, dolphins and seals can catch it.

Why didn’t anyone see that coming?

We made. Even before this happened, virologists were concerned about reverse spillover, where people pass the virus on to pets or wild animals. This could be a problem for the animals as some species get sick and die. It could also mean trouble for us as animals become a new reservoir of viruses and the pandemic could be even harder to control. Animals could also be a melting pot for the virus to mutate into another novel coronavirus.

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