Large mink fur farms threaten our COVID-19 health efforts

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To what extent is it acceptable for a private company to put public health at risk? What level of risk can a private individual or company pose to 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 while avoiding interference with personal and business activities. Important considerations ranged from placing restrictions on store occupancy and social gatherings to imposing masks on planes and buses, to fur farming – especially mink breeding.

Minks are naturally wild animals, native to Canada. Like cats, they are excellent hunters and purr when content. They are also highly vulnerable to COVID-19 and influenza – respiratory viruses that can cause a pandemic.

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

The main concern is that SARS-CoV-2 could spread like wildfire among thousands of mink crowded next to each other on fur farms. As the rate of transmission increases, SARS-CoV-2 can develop new and dangerous mutations, which can pass back to people – something that has already happened in Europe.

Genomic studies of mink in British Columbia fur farms have documented the emergence 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 in a fur farm and even after infection and development of antibodies, mink can become infected again.

In November, after it was documented that SARS-CoV-2 had been circulating for more than two months among 25,000 animals on a mink farm in Fraser Valley, an order from a county health official asserted that “mink farming is as much a health hazard as an activity that threatens or Potentially endanger public healthAnd“The county has announced that it wants to phase out mink fur farms.

In addition to infectious disease specialists, leaders of First Nations and animal welfare groups have been vocal in their opposition to fur farming and have called for an end to the practice. Public opinion polls have also documented that the vast majority of the Canadian population opposes the practice of fur farming and feels that standard practices, such as extensive confinement and the use of anal electrocution to kill foxes, are no longer acceptable.

This is a time sensitive issue

The risks associated with continuing industrial mink cultivation outweigh the limited societal benefits. Photo by Dzhevniko Priviba/Flickr (CC BY 2.

Last month, there were still more than 2,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 20 deaths per day across Canada. The emergence of a variant Omicron renewed concerns. Deer have been identified as susceptible to COVID-19. The continued presence of large mink farms threatens to develop reservoir animals and new variants threaten to undermine the COVID-19 vaccination program and public health efforts.

Opinion: The risks associated with continuing industrial mink cultivation outweigh the limited societal benefits, write Jan Hajekahoysvet, Alastair McAlpine @AlastairMcA30 and Victor LeungVicLeungIDdoc. #covid19

Mink vaccination may help reduce the risk and slow the emergence of novel variants of SARS-CoV-2. However, publicly funded vaccination programs for mink plants, as initiated in Nova Scotia, will not eliminate these risks and will require ongoing application and monitoring.

According to standard practice, approximately 80 percent of minks are expected to be killed in November and December, and if breeding is allowed in 2022, the remaining minks will undergo breeding in the following months; Each female gives birth to an average of five children, which greatly increases the number of mink in Canada.

The chances of a new variant appearing on a mink farm in Canada and dramatically changing the course of the epidemic, or creating a permanent reservoir for other animals, are low, but the consequences if this happens could be catastrophic.

The risks associated with continuing industrial mink cultivation outweigh the limited societal benefits. Investing more public resources and providing more financial support to compensate for the decline in the returns to fur farming is no longer justified.

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

Dr. Jean Hajek, Dr. Alistair McAlpine and Dr. Victor Leung are specialists in infectious diseases.

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