COVID-19 Outbreaks and Mutations on Mink Farms May Instigate International Ban on Fur Farming
Article by Kyle Tang,
On Wednesday, November 4, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced the government’s plan to slaughter the country’s entire population of 17 million mink. This mass culling order occurred after scientists from Statens Serum Institut (SSI), a Danish infectious disease research institute, detected mutated strains of COVID-19 in mink. While mutations are relatively common and generally harmless, SSI detected two mutations that are concerning because they affect the virus’s spike protein, the target of many developing vaccines. Initial tests found that antibodies are less effective against the mutated strain, known as “Cluster 5,” but the full extent of its effects on vaccine efficacy remain unclear.
What is known, however, is that Cluster 5 is capable of mink-to-human transmission. Twelve people in Denmark have contracted the Cluster 5 strain, and more than 200 others have contracted other mink-related strains. Experts believe that infected workers first spread coronavirus to mink on farms, where tight living spaces accelerated the infection rate between mink. These rapid transmission rates gave the virus a plethora of opportunities to accumulate genetic mutations, and now the virus has “spilled back” from mink to humans.
While Cluster 5 fortunately appears to be under control, the possibility of more prolific mutations in the future is a lurking threat. With the European Union’s recent purchase of 300 million doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine and many other vaccine candidates in phase three trials, proliferation of a stable resistant strain at the current stage of the pandemic would be especially devastating. Additionally, researchers fear that the virus may find permanent reservoirs in mink and related species, allowing it to reemerge even after local eradication. The potential for such dire consequences underscores the danger of factory farming practices, and the world has taken notice.
Denmark’s outbreaks across mink farms have had both domestic and international legal impacts. Amid accusations from Danish legislators and members of the fur industry that the government’s order was illegal, authorities later downgraded the order to a recommendation and submitted emergency legislation on November 10 to support a future order. In the United Kingdom, the Home Office, a government agency responsible for immigration law and policy, responded to Denmark’s mass outbreaks by implementing a travel ban between the two countries and expanding its self-isolation requirements.
Similar coronavirus outbreaks have occurred in Spain, Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United States, all of which have begun culling populations from affected farms. Fearing that farms may become permanent virus reservoirs, the Netherlands implemented further measures, expediting a complete ban on mink farming by March 2021. British Health Minister Matt Hancock alluded to a possible global ban, suggesting that the international community should reexamine the mink farming industry.
Sentiments concerning the global treatment of fur trade are not new. In fact, PETA and the animal protection charity Humane Society International have campaigned for a global end to the fur trade for years. What is unprecedented is how thin the line has grown between the real and hypothetical dangers that fur farming poses to international public health. The international community collectively banning fur farming could reignite the global effort to reform humanity’s relationship with the environment.
Kyle Tang (J.D. Candidate, Class of 2020) is a Contributor to Travaux. His interests include antitrust law, international arbitration, and privacy law. Kyle holds a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Berkeley. Before law school, Kyle served as a legislative assistant with the Berkeley City Council.