European Mink in Cage in Lithuania

The Urgent Moral and Public Health Case Against Mink Farming

Late yesterday, a key Oregon Senate Committee took up the nation’s first proposed statewide ban on mink farming in the wake of a torrent of scientific findings to indicate the major role that mink farms may have in spreading COVID-19.  S.B. 832, introduced by State Senator Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene), would phase out mink farming within 270 days of enactment and provide a range of support to the state’s five remaining mink farmers.

Even though the industry has withered in a social environment where consumers around the world shun fur, the trade group for the mink industry and its allies mounted a spirited defense at yesterday’s hearing. They claimed that they provide good care to the wild, largely solitary, and semi-aquatic mammals, but we know, to paraphrase Hobbes, that the life of a farmed mink is nasty, brutish, and short. They also said that the federal and state agriculture departments and the mink producers have the COVID-19 crisis under control, even though nearly 20 percent of U.S. mink farms have experienced outbreaks, tens of thousands of farmed mink have been sickened, died, or been euthanized, and wild mink have been infected by escapees from infected farms.

The verbal contortions and false assurances from the mink industry are becoming harder to countenance given the drumbeat of scientific findings and concerns. Last week, the World Health Organization released its “Global Study of Origins of SARS-CoV-2: China Part Joint WHO-China Study 14 January-10 February 2021” (Joint Report) and noted that mink may be the potential reservoir or reservoir host of COVID-19 and could even be the primary source of COVID-19.

One witness yesterday for SB 832 was Dr. Jim Keen, D.V.M., Ph.D., who studied infectious diseases in farm settings for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for more than two decades. A veterinary epidemiologist, Dr. Keen was tapped to deploy to the United Kingdom after it had an outbreak of Foot-and-Mouth Disease in 2001 and then deployed to western Asia to deal with a dangerous eruption of African Swine Fever.

During his testimony, Dr. Keen made the following points on why farmed mink place the public health at risk from SARS-CoV-2.

  • Mink are the only animals beside people that transmit, sicken, and die in large numbers from COVID-19.
  • Mink are the only animals besides people that spill the COVID-19 virus back infection to people often in mutated form. Mink farmers, their families and their communities are at greatest risk.
  • Mink are the only animal with a large potential wild animal reservoir for COVID. There are millions of wild or feral mink across the entire Northern hemisphere that could be and have been infected.
  • Mink are a top candidate as the “missing link” between bats and people according to WHO.
  • Mink are a proven source of multiple novel virus variants that may compromise human vaccine effectiveness or increase human virus virulence or transmissibility.
  • Soon to be released US mink veterinary vaccines against COVID-19 are not a panacea and may even be detrimental to control of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to mink farms in nearly all the top-producing states in the U.S. experiencing SARS-CoV-2 infections, the nations of Canada, Denmark, France, Greece, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and Sweden have also seen outbreaks. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), between June 2020 and January 2021, Denmark reported over 1,000 human cases of infection with a mink-related variant of the virus  that spread from the North to the South. Some estimates run as high as 4,000 human cases traced to farmed mink.

The leading mink producer in the world, Denmark killed all 17 million captive mink in the country after the Cluster-5 variant developed on mink farms there.  Only with aggressive containment and quarantine strategies for the sick people, and the culling of all 17 million mink in Denmark was the variant stopped.  A Science study, published in January, noted that 68 percent of the family members and friends of mink farm workers contracted COVID-19 in the Netherlands. That country, which in 2019 was the fourth larger mink-producer in the world, banned all fur farming last month.

Meanwhile, an outbreak of Covid-19 occurred on an Oregon mink farm in Astoria in August. Three mink escaped from the infected farm, and two of those animals were later captured and tested positive, meaning they could have also infected native wild mink and closely related native mustelid species, such as otters, fishers, and martens.

“Farmed mink may be key to the 2019 emergence of COVID-19 as the ‘missing link’ between bats and people in an Asian zoonotic perfect storm,” noted Dr. Keen. “If we continue to farm mink by the millions and use their skins for topical decoration, they will likely remain a continual source of COVID virus variants. And if COVID spreads from farmed mink into the large wild and feral mink populations across the northern hemisphere (deemed likely by the WHO), humans may be cursed with COVID risk forever.”

If several European nations had not taken decisive action, we might very well be talking about the Danish Cluster-5 variant in the United States and not just about the British, South African, and Brazil variants. 

The U.S. has taken dramatic action to arrest the movement of the virus, to prevent the emergence of variants, and to try to shorten the duration of the pandemic. Why then is it okay to disrupt thousands of nursing homes, tens of thousands of schools, and hundreds of thousands of restaurants to address the COVID-19 crisis, but to take only  limited action with respect to the few dozen mink farms remaining in the nation?

Denmark had 5.5 million people and 1150 mink farms, while the U.S. has 80 mink farms and 330 million people.  If the Danes had the resolve to confront the problem, given the power of the fur trade there, it asks less of us politically to address the same zoonotic disease pathways in the United States. We now know much more today than the Danes did three months ago when they depopulated their mink farms. 

Factory farming of these wild, solitary, semi-aquatic animals to kill them for a luxury garment is objectionable by itself. But this debate has been engaged with new intensity now because it is a scientific fact that mink farms, which are a small and vanishing part of the agricultural economy, are a major zoonotic disease transmission threat. Why would we put our elderly citizen at risk, the operations of our schools, and the functioning of our other businesses, to supply pelts to a tiny segment of luxury consumers in China? 

The global pandemic, with its origins in the inhumane and severe exploitation of wildlife for commerce, has a swelling price tag in the tens of trillions of dollars and mounting human toll in the millions. The world, including China, is finally addressing live-wildlife markets, but the United States and China are lagging badly in addressing the threat that mink factory farms pose. Any COVID-19 response that omits dramatic action related to high-density mink farming is short-sighted and science-denying.

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