An outbreak of COVID-19 on a mink farm in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia calls again for an end to the fur trade in Canada.
Eight people with connections to the mink farm tested positive for the disease, according to Fraser Health, where some groups are concerned about the possibility of the virus being transmitted to the mink.
“The fact that the workers are sick is very, very likely that the animals are sick,” said Lesley Fox, executive director of Fur Bearers, a nonprofit animal advocacy group.
“Many of these farms have tens of thousands of individual minks, so testing each of them is probably not realistic, but of course any of them could carry the virus and transmit the virus.”
Less than a week ago, her organization called on provincial health officials to conduct proactive tests on mink farms. She also called on the federal government to help fur farm owners transition from the fur industry to “sustainable, environmentally friendly businesses”.
CLOCK | COVID-19 outbreak on mink farm Sparks concerned:
Last month, the Danish government ordered the culling of all farmed minks after finding that every 12 people were infected with a unique mutant strain of the virus that causes COVID-19, which passed from humans to minks and back to humans.
The World Health Organization has so far identified six countries that reported SARS-CoV-2 in minks, including Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Italy, and the United States.
Health officials have not specified how the transfer occurred on the farm in BC. Animal samples were sent to the National Center for Foreign Animal Diseases in Winnipeg for testing.
Negative effects on the effectiveness of the vaccine
If the virus has been transmitted between species, new mutations of the coronavirus may appear, says an internist at Canada West Veterinary Specialists, Vancouver’s largest veterinary clinic
“These mink farms have hundreds, thousands of minks that we know are susceptible to this virus that then mix,” said veterinarian Dr. Lauren Adelman.
She says it is likely that people who work on the farm are the original source of exposure, and if minks are infected, there is a chance the virus could mutate within the mink population.
“A lot of these mutations they find may be related to this spike protein, which is obviously a cause for concern as this is the vaccine target that is being developed.”
Mink on a Danish farm in November. (Mads Claus Rasmussen / Ritzau Scanpix / Reuters)
The Department of Agriculture said it inspected each of the BC-approved mink farms in the fall to ensure that improved biosecurity measures were in place.
Alan Herscovici, former director of the Fur Council of Canada, believes these measures have worked well so far.
“We’ve seen it in mink in Europe and the US since spring. And even if we had a case here, it would be the first in Canada.”
He says these measures include reducing the number of on-site workers, maintaining supplies outside the farm, checking workers for a fever, and wearing personal protective equipment if the mink is fed twice a day.
The discovery of mutant strains in Denmark resulted in the destruction of 17 million animals, including healthy animals outside the northern part of the country where infections were found.
According to Herscovici, Canada, with only 60 mink farms across the country, has a much smaller fur industry than Denmark, which is home to up to 1,200 farms.
“So you don’t have the concentration and density that could increase the risk of infection from one farm to the next,” he said. “So we definitely have an advantage there. It’s not the same situation at all.”
Fox said the concentration of at least a dozen farms in the Fraser Valley, each with tens of thousands of mink, is cause for concern.
“The chance of spreading is pretty good because they’re all in that one area between Langley and Abbotsford,” she said. “It’s also worth noting that individual mink escapes. It happens fairly regularly.”
In a statement, WorkSafeBC says it is reaching out directly to other mink farms in BC to review and update their COVID-19 safety plans.