Large mink fur farms threaten our COVID-19 health efforts

To what extent is it acceptable for a private company to put public health at risk? What level of risk can an individual or a private company impose on others from a public health perspective?

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to grapple with such questions, balancing the need to protect public health and avoiding interference with personal and business activities. Important considerations range from setting limits on store occupancy and social gatherings to requiring masks on airplanes and buses, to cultivating fur, especially mink cultivation.

Minks are naturally wild animals, native to Canada. Like cats, they are excellent hunters and purr when they are happy. They are also highly susceptible to COVID-19 and influenza, respiratory viruses with pandemic potential.

The COVID-19 outbreaks in large private mink farms in British Columbia (which continued despite the implementation of additional biosecurity measures and the prioritization of COVID-19 vaccines for employees) have attracted international attention.

A key concern is that SARS-CoV-2 can spread like wildfire among the thousands of minks huddled side by side on fur farms. With increased transmission, SARS-CoV-2 can develop new and potentially dangerous mutations, which can then be passed on to people, something that has already happened in Europe.

Genomic studies of mink in fur farms in BC documented the appearance of a critical mutation (Y453F) associated with partial resistance to antibody-mediated immunity. Additional studies in Europe have shown that COVID-19 can persist for months on a fur farm and even after infection and the development of antibodies, mink can be reinfected.

In November, after documenting that the SARS-CoV-2 virus had been circulating for more than two months among 25,000 animals at a mink farm in the Fraser Valley, and a order of the provincial health official stating “mink farming is a health hazard as it is an activity that endangers or is likely to endanger public health,” the province announced that it wants to phase out mink fur farms.

In addition to infectious disease specialists, First Nations leaders and animal welfare groups have voiced opposition to fur farming and have called to end this practice. Public opinion polls They have also documented that the vast majority of Canadian residents oppose the practice of fur farming and feel that standard practices, such as intensive confinement and the use of anal electrocution to kill foxes, are no longer acceptable.

This is an urgent matter

The risks associated with continuing industrial mink farming outweigh the limited social benefits. Photo by Dzivnieku briviba / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Last month, there were still more than 2,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 20 deaths per day across Canada. The appearance of the Omicron variant has renewed concerns. Deer have been identified as susceptible to COVID-19. The continued presence of large mink fur farms puts at risk the development of animal reservoirs and novel variants that threaten to undermine our COVID-19 vaccination program and public health efforts.

Opinion: The risks associated with continuing industrial mink farming outweigh the limited social benefits, writes Jan Hajek @ahoysvet, Alastair McAlpine @ AlastairMcA30, and Victor Leung @VicLeungIDdoc. # COVID-19

Mink vaccination can help reduce risks and delay the emergence of new variants of SARS-CoV-2. However, publicly funded mink vaccination programs initiated in Nova Scotia will not eliminate these risks and will require continued enforcement and surveillance.

According to standard practice, approximately 80 percent of minks are expected to die in November and December and, if breeding is allowed in 2022, the remaining minks will be subject to breeding in the following months; Each female gives birth to an average of five babies, dramatically increasing the number of minks in Canada.

The chances of a new variant emerging on a mink farm in Canada and significantly altering the course of the pandemic, or establishing a permanent reservoir in other animals, are low, but the consequences if this happened could be catastrophic.

The risks associated with continuing industrial mink farming outweigh the limited social benefits. It is no longer justified to invest more public resources and provide more financial support to offset the decline in income from fur farming.

The ban on mink fur farms and transition support for fur farm operators in British Columbia were positive steps. But COVID-19 does not respect borders and we need to have a positive and proactive plan to help the remaining mink farming operations in Canada close safely and permanently. Mink fur farming must stop.

Dr. Jan Hajek, Dr. Alastair McAlpine, and Dr. Victor Leung are infectious disease specialists.

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