The severity of the impact of a COVID-19 outbreak at a B.C. mink farm will depend on whether officials are able to contain it to a single facility, experts say.
On Friday, the province confirmed that 200 mink at the farm had died, likely from the virus. It came days after tests revealed at least five mink at the facility were COVID-positive. Eight workers have also tested positive.
The farm has not been identified “due to potential safety concerns,” according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries.
Sally Otto, a zoology professor at the University of British Columbia, said mink farms are ideal breeding grounds for viruses, because of the close quarters and high rate of contact the animals have with one another.
“The real danger is that it spreads from farm to farm,” she said.
“In other U.S. jurisdictions they’ve had thousands of mink die, and as you know in Denmark they culled across the country in order to reduce the risk of mink becoming this really large reservoir of COVID that can then mutate and change and potentially come back into humans.”
Earlier this year Denmark culled 17 million of the animals after evidence showed the animals could transmit a mutated form of the virus back to humans.
Alan Herscovici, founding editor of truthaboutfur.com and former director of the Fur Council of Canada, expressed confidence Saturday the outbreak could be contained.
Herscovici said Canadian farms had implemented strict biosecurity protocols upon learning mink were vulnerable last spring.
“What that means is access in and out of the farm was limited as possible, people coming in contact with the animals — like we do with each other — putting on masks, PPE, a different coat … if any workers come to work feeling not well, they should be tested before coming in contact with the animals,” he said.
Herscovici said in Denmark, 1,100 farms with millions of animals were clustered in an area about the size of Vancouver Island, arguing the Canadian industry was far smaller and more spread out.
“You don’t have that same risk of contagion at all,” he said.
“That concentration they had in Denmark was a great advantage for them … it made them very efficient, but unfortunately when hit with this virus it became their downfall.”
According to the most recent statistics from Agriculture and Agrifood Canada, there were 98 mink farms in Canada. The BC SPCA says there are 13 farms in B.C., most of them in the Fraser Valley, which harvest more than a quarter-million animals each year.
Mutations in the virus carried by Danish mink have since proven to be less worrisome than originally thought, said Dr. Jan Hajek, a University of British Columbia infectious disease specialist.
Hajek said the initial concern that mutations would render the virus immune to COVID-19 vaccines in development has not borne out.
However, research suggests it could affect COVID-19’s ability to resist antibodies, such as those used in the Regeneron COVID-19 therapy, he said.
Hajek cautioned the spread of COVID-19 into mink, or beyond, into other animals, could come with other problems.
“One of the risks could be that it goes into these other animal hosts and sets up a reservoir, and after we get on top of our pandemic and we’re better, it could resume and come back to reinfect us,” he said.
“There’s some risks that we can tolerate and some risks we shouldn’t tolerate. And we have to decide if this is one of the risks that the benefits to us are worth it.”
Animal rights groups are clear in their position that the benefits of the industry aren’t worth it.
Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of the Humane Society International Canada, described the farms as “factories of misery,” and argued the industry should be shut down.
Aldworth said the animals are confined in inhumane conditions, where they show obvious signs of psychological stress.
“These are highly intelligent, semi-aquatic animals that in the wild roam over huge amounts of territory,” she said.
“On a mink farm, they’re crammed into tiny, barren wire cages, positioned over excrement that is rotting. The smell and the sounds are just overpowering.”
The current COVID-19 outbreak is a chance for people to learn how the farms operate, Aldworth said, adding she hoped it would build public pressure against the industry.
According to provincial officials, the outbreak remains limited to a single farm, the majority of the mink are not showing symptoms, and the mortality rate has “slowed in recent days.”
The source of the initial infection remains under investigation, though the agriculture ministry says due to the farm’s isolation a worker most likely transmitted the virus to the animals.
It said ministry staff have inspected all of the province’s mink farms to ensure compliance with standard biosecurity measures and enhanced COVID-19 practices.
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