Workers at a mink farm in Oregon have gone into quarantine after contracting COVID-19, as the animals in the farm become the state’s first to fall infected.
Officials in Oregon said that all ten samples from the mink tested positive.
It was not clear how many humans had the virus, and the farm was not named.
Animals including mink, cats and dogs can catch COVID from humans. But while cats and dogs appear to suffer mild symptoms, the virus can be deadly to mink.
At present there is no evidence that animals in the U.S., including mink, are playing a significant role in transmitting the virus to humans, according to the CDC and the US Department of Agriculture.
In Europe, however, millions of animals have been culled after people in Denmark and the Netherlands were confirmed to have caught a mutation of the virus from mink – sparking fears that a human vaccine could be rendered useless.
‘Cluster 5’, as the mutation is known, was last detected in September and is believed to have now been eradicated.
A mink farm in Oregon has become the first in the state to confirm a COVID-19 outbreak
Mink in Utah, Wisconsin, Michigan and now Oregon have become infected with the virus
A health worker administers a COVID test. Cats, dogs, lions and tigers have also had COVID
After the workers at the Oregon farm tested positive, state veterinarian Ryan Scholz with the Oregon Department of Agriculture immediately placed the farm under quarantine, meaning no animal or animal products can leave the farm until further notice.
‘We have been engaged with the Oregon mink industry for some time, providing information on biosecurity to prevent the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 and were ready to respond,’ Scholz said.
‘The farmer did the right thing by self-reporting symptoms very early and he is now cooperating with us and Oregon Health Authority (OHA) in taking care of his animals and staff.
‘So far, we have no reports of mink mortalities linked to the virus but that could change as the virus progresses.’
In Utah, 10,000 mink have died from the virus since August – the vast majority of the 15,000 nationwide known to have died of the coronavirus.
In Denmark (pictured) 17 million mink have been gassed owing to COVID-19 fears
The United States has 359,850 mink bred to produce babies, known as kits, and produced 2.7 million pelts last year.
Wisconsin is the largest mink-producing state, followed by Utah.
Sick mink in Wisconsin and Utah were exposed to people with probable or confirmed COVID-19 cases, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said.
In Michigan it is still unknown if the mink were infected by humans, according to the agency.
In Utah, the first U.S. state to confirm mink infections in August, about 10,700 mink have died on nine farms, said Dean Taylor, state veterinarian.
‘On all nine, everything is still suggesting a one-way travel from people to the minks,’ he said.
In Europe officials disagree, however, and Denmark on November 4 ordered the cull of its entire mink population – 17 million animals – to protect humans from the virus.
The cull came after finding that mutated versions of the coronavirus had developed in the animals and jumped to at least 373 people.
One of those mutations might jeopardize future vaccination efforts.
Denmark’s controversial policy has a ghoulish turn, however, with the bodies of gassed dead mink rising from the ground as they decomposed, having not been buried properly.
The government is now planning on exhuming the animals and burning the carcasses.
Danish mink are prized for the high quality of their fur. The Danish industry employs 6,000 people and exports fur pelts worth $800 million (€670 million) annually.
The head of the Danish mink breeders’ association said earlier this month that the industry is now completely finished.
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, in tears, visited a mink breeder on Friday and apologized for her government’s handling of the affair.
Mass culls have also taken place in France, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands and Ireland.
In the U.S., authorities are not planning any mass culls, as they do not believe the mink are infecting humans.
Monitoring U.S. mink for virus symptoms and quarantining infected farms should limit the disease’s spread if cases are caught early, said Richard Webby, a virologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
‘I’m fairly confident that as long as they have that surveillance going and it’s strong enough, then they should be able to prevent the spread,’ he said.
U.S. authorities are urging farmers to wear protective gear like masks and gloves when handling mink to avoid infecting the animals.
In Wisconsin, about 5,000 mink have died on two farms, State Veterinarian Darlene Konkle said.
One farm is composting the dead mink to dispose of the carcasses without spreading the virus, Konkle said.
Workers in Korzani municipality in Greece bury mink culled because of COVID fears
A mass grave for mink is seen in Greece. In Denmark, the animals are having to be exhumed
Authorities are working with the second farm to determine how to dispose of the mink, and dead animals are being kept in a metal container in the meantime, she said.
Michigan declined to disclose how many mink have died, citing privacy rules.
State officials said they are working with the USDA to determine whether farmers can sell the pelts of infected mink. The pelts are used to make fur coats and other items.
The coronavirus has also infected cats, dogs, a lion and a tiger, according to the USDA.
Experts say mink appear to be the most susceptible animal so far.
WHAT IS THE NEW COVID-19 STRAIN AND SHOULD YOU BE WORRIED?
What is going on in Denmark?
The coronavirus which originated in China and is currently racing through the world’s population was passed from humans to mink.
When it entered the mink population the virus was forced to mutate to multiply inside its new host and spread among the animals, creating a new strain.
At some point this new variant was then passed back to humans.
Should we be worried?
So far experts believe the new strain – known as Cluster 5 – is not more infectious or deadly than previous versions.
But there is a concern that it is less sensitive to antibodies – substances produced by the immune system to fight off infections.
Vaccines work by training the body to be able to unleash a wave of antibodies when the virus tries to infect people.
This has raised concerns that it might render any future Covid-19 vaccine less effective if it were to spread.
Danish specialists have warned it could theoretically start a new pandemic.
How did it happen?
All viruses naturally mutate as they spread.
The sole purpose of the virus is to replicate as many times as possible, and many pathogens evolve over time in order to become more infectious — which often makes them less deadly so they can survive for longer and be spread to more people.
It is believed SARS-CoV-2 originated in bats before jumping to humans in China, possibly via an intermediary species such as a pangolin.
Mink in Denmark are believed to have caught the virus from infected workers at fur farms.
The virus then mutated in the minks before ‘spilling back’ to reinfect humans.