Virus researchers kept in the dark in US

By BELINDA ROBINSON in New York | China Daily | Updated: 2022-05-11 07:39
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A man adjusts a COVID-19 testing tent in New York's Times Square on April 27. SPENCER PLATT/AFP

Outbreaks on farms

Across the US, the USDA has recorded 18 COVID-19 outbreaks on 60 mink farms. At least 12 occurred in Utah, three in Wisconsin, one in Oregon, one in Michigan and one in another unidentified location. It is not known if there have been more. But, if COVID-19 passes through mink they almost always show mutations, say experts.

On most fur farms, thousands of furry, small mink live in crowded, often caged conditions. Their manure piles up beneath their cages, making any viruses that arise easy to transmit. It will go from mink-to-mink first and then spread to other animals. If there is a virus outbreak, it comes out through the mink's breath or through their waste.

Mink farms have been branded "the perfect breeding ground" for infectious disease as they can contract COVID-19, similarly to humans because their cells have a protein called ACE2 that allows for the virus to easily enter their bodies and multiply.

John Easley, a mink veterinarian and consultant for the mink industry in Wisconsin, said that the US has worked hard to put protocols in place to prevent any more COVID-19 outbreaks among mink. He adds that about 95 percent of mink are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Easley told China Daily: "What we've done from an industry standpoint is worked directly with USDA and the CDC to develop guidance policies on how best to address the potential risk to the mink, and, then, thusly, any potential risk that the mink may pose to the employees on the farm.

"We've had dedicated biosecurity situations and protocols in place to try to mitigate the risk of the infection coming on the farm. And then also doing research to understand the different variants, and how they affect the mink, and how potentially the makeup may spread the virus into the environment."

The American Rescue Act, 2021, legislation passed for COVID-19 relief, included $300 million to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for animal surveillance and monitoring of COVID-19. However, no details have been released on investigations into captive mink, mink surveillance or how mink spread COVID-19.

The CDC and the USDA currently decide along with state health departments when animals should be tested for COVID-19 if they show signs of infection.

In February, the US House of Representatives passed legislation aimed at banning mink farming. On May 5, the Senate recommended that the industry not be changed in a nonbinding vote.

Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, a nonprofit in Washington, DC, told China Daily that mink farms in Europe and the US have spawned five deadly COVID-19 variants.

"These are the only confirmed cases of spillover of COVID-19 variants from animals to people. Unless we shut down mink farms, other variants will almost certainly emerge and threaten human health and the global economy," Pacelle said,

The US mink industry was valued at $47 million in 2020.

Mandatory requirement

The top mink-producing state is Wisconsin with approximately 19 farms that kill 400,000 mink a year.

Since April 2020, COVID-19 outbreaks have affected more than 450 mink fur farms in Europe and North America, resulting in over 20 million animals being culled, according to The Fur Free Alliance, an international coalition of animal protection organizations covering 35 countries.

In many European nations, the reporting of a virus outbreak among animals is mandatory and they are obligated to tell the public health authorities when an outbreak occurs. In the US, it's optional.

In 2020, Denmark, then the largest mink producer in the world, and the Netherlands killed millions of mink over fears that they could spread COVID-19.

In another step, lawmakers in the Netherlands, a major mink breeder, voted to outlaw mink farming. Ireland passed legislation in March to ban fur farming. Estonia will ban fur farming from January 2026.

Keen said he has recorded five dangerous farmed mink mutant strains that have later infected people. They include: Cluster 5 in Denmark and the Netherlands, Marseille-4 in France, N501T in Michigan, Y453F in Poland and lastly Latvia, which discovered a mutant mink strain that eventually infected both humans (employees on a farm) and mink.

He warns that there will likely be more COVID-19 mutations among mink that could affect humans, strain COVID-19 vaccines, and "risk a catastrophic outcome", if nothing changes in the US industry.

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