Breeding ground for pandemics – why mink farming is a danger to public health

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Over the last year, the world has been confronted with a new and overwhelming situation. A global pandemic has forced countries all over the world into repeated lockdowns, almost 1.9 million people have died from COVID-19, 91 million have suffered from the disease and billions have been severely impacted by the social and economic consequences.

While many are hoping for a brighter future in 2021, with vaccinations being distributed and the treatment options for patients vastly improving, it is important to not lose sight of the risk factors for COVID-19 and future pandemics.

Mink farms, where thousands of animals live in close proximity are a breeding ground for the disease. Despite this, fur farms are still operating in several EU-Member states, killing millions of animals every year.

A danger to public health

While coronaviruses have infected many species in the past, mink are the only farmed species to both, catch COVID-19 from humans and transmit it back to them. In April 2020, the first cases of SARS-CoV-2 were discovered in mink in the Netherlands.

Since then, more than 390 mink farms in at least nine EU-member states including Denmark, Sweden and France, as well as farms in the USA and Canada have had outbreaks of the virus. Due to the horrendous living conditions of the animals, contained by the thousands in small spaces, the virus can spread across the farms rapidly.

Recent research has shown that this not only increases the risk of the farm workers being infected by the virus, but it also provides ideal conditions for the virus to mutate. Danish Health Authorities have found new variants of the virus in humans that were infected by mink.

Experts have pointed out that those mutations could lead to vaccines being less effective, new treatments being required and people who have antibodies from previous infections no longer being immune.

The Danish government ordered all 17 million captive mink in the country to be culled and has now suspended mink farming until the beginning of 2022. Other countries have also decided to ban fur farming permanently or temporarily.

A warning sign

The spread of new virus variants from mink to humans could be detrimental for public health and safety, and the example of Denmark was a wakeup call with considerable resonance in Brussels.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control warned that new strains of the virus could undermine the global efforts to combat the pandemic and cause significant setbacks.

“The Commission is expected to prepare a working paper on the issue of COVID-19 and mink farming,” said Pierre Sultana, FOUR PAWS European Policy Office Director, “we hope the Commission will adopt a precautionary approach and recognise that the issue needs an immediate action to avoid severe consequences on human health.

Allowing the continuation of mink farming by putting niche economic interests over public health should not be an option.” In light of recent events, a ban seems more urgent now than ever before.

An urgent call to action

The European Commission has already issued an implementing decision on 21st of December 2020, asking the Member States, amongst other safety measures, to monitor and report COVID-19 outbreaks in animal populations susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 such as racoon dogs and mink. While this is a step in the right direction, it fails to address the issue fully.

We cannot afford to take public health lightly anymore. In an open letter addressed to the Commission, 47 Eurogroup for Animals and Fur Free Alliance member organisations, from all EU member states called for an end to fur farming.

Avoiding disease breeding grounds has to be a top priority. The presence of mink and racoon dog farms poses a serious threat and the cases in Denmark, the Netherlands and other EU Member States have shown that despite early warning systems, enhanced biosecurity measures and culling of infected animals, the transmission to humans is not always avoidable.

The mutations seen in the virus in mink could render medications and vaccines useless and has the potential to significantly prolong our battle with the pandemic or potentially even reintroduce the virus to humans after the circulation has been stopped.

To tackle this issue adequately and effectively and assure human and animal welfare, the EU needs to urgently suspend farming and breeding of mink as well as all in-country and cross-border transportation of live mink and their raw pelts, both inside and outside the European Union.

The One Health Approach, actively promoted by the European Commission, already acknowledges that animal, human and environmental health are tightly interlocked and cannot be treated as separate issues. While we are still battling the current pandemic, we need to do better in the future.

The upcoming meeting of EU Agricultural Ministers on January 25th offers an opportunity to discuss mink farming. “We ask Agriculture Ministers to call the Commission to take effective action to suspend the breeding of mink in fur farming across the EU,” said Reineke Hameleers, CEO of Eurogroup for Animals.

“It is more urgent than ever, in times where new mutations of this deadly virus are starting to emerge in both animals and humans,” said Joh Vinding, chair of the Fur Free Alliance.

Since a growing number of member states have already banned fur farms, this is a chance to start 2021 with a stride in the right direction: there is no better time to end fur farming than now. A fur farm free Europe is a healthier Europe for humans and animals alike.

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