Two U.S. states — Wisconsin and Utah — are battling major COVID-19 outbreaks at mink farms, both of which experts believe stemmed from humans. Nearly 10,000 minks have died from the virus in Utah, experts confirmed to Yahoo Life Friday, as well as several hundred in Wisconsin. The outbreaks have occurred on the heels of a similar one this summer in the Netherlands, which forced one of the world’s leading exporters of mink to effectively shut down.
Scientists have described the COVID-19 epidemic among minks as spillover from humans or “zoonosis in reverse,” the opposite of how the virus initially spread (from an animal to a human). But although officials in both states say the risk to individuals working with the minks is low, an epidemiologist says that the easily transmissible virus could still spread the other direction.
Prior to the mink outbreaks, COVID-19 had only been identified in dogs, cats, lions and tigers. But Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, says its presence in minks makes it clear that the animals have what’s called an ACE2 protein, a receptor that provides the “entry point into the cells” for the coronavirus. “Not everybody has it, and children have it less than older persons, but it seems that these mink have the appropriate one,” says Schaffner.
As a result, he says, mink may be able to spread the virus back to humans. “If these animals are infected, they’re also shedding the virus, it’s a highly communicable virus,” says Schaffner. “The mink likely got it from people, but now it’s spreading among the mink and if it can do that — and you have these workers in close contact with the mink — they could get it back. I don’t see why it couldn’t ping pong.” Officials in the Netherlands have reported a few potential cases in which the virus traveled from minks back to humans, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the overall risk of the virus traveling from animals to humans is “low.”
In an interview with Yahoo Life, Utah state veterinarian Dr. Dean Taylor says out of the nine facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks among minks, none have reported any mink-to-human transmission. “We’re always concerned about transmission because we don’t understand everything about the virus,” says Taylor. “But what the research has shown here is that we cannot document any transfer from mink to people. So we still feel like that is extremely remote.”
Taylor pushes back on earlier reports that the mink’s fur would be “processed to remove any traces of the virus” and then made into garments, saying that is “not happening” in Utah. “All nine [facilities] are still under strict quarantine by the state, so that prevents any mink from coming or going from those facilities, including mink product,” says Taylor. “Nothing has left these farms.”
Michael Whelan, executive director of Fur Commission USA, echoes Taylor’s comments, saying that “no animals or animal by-products will be leaving the farms.” Whelan said he and others are leaning on the CDC to help them make a decision about what will happen to the fur. “We’re waiting for science to determine with certainty how long the virus is infectious on an inanimate host,” he says.
PETA did not reply to Yahoo Life’s request for comment on the minks, nor did the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but for those concerned about how this may affect other farm animals, Taylor says very minimally. “I don’t think people outside the farms need to worry about this. I think the main producers understand that … they are a susceptible species with a fairly high death loss,” says Taylor. “But as far as surrounding areas, we don’t really feel like there is a tremendous risk.”
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