CDC Goes Wild on Rabies, Ignores Urgent Domestic COVID-19 Threat from Mink Farms

COVID-19 and rabies are both zoonotic diseases, with the viruses originating in non-human animals and then infecting people after a transmission event.

In the last 17 months, COVID-19 has infected nearly 35 million Americans, with more than 600,000 dead. In the same period, there have been zero cases of rabies in humans in the United States, according to my search of the CDC website and scan of news reports.

COVID-19 is a pandemic, the biggest viral crisis in the world since the Spanish flu of 1918 and the biggest global disrupter since World War II. Rabies, by comparison, is a viral non-event, a tribute to, as the CDC notes, “successful pet vaccination and animal control programs, public health surveillance and testing, and availability of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) for rabies.”

Yet if you just looked at CDC’s policies relative to the management of transmission threats from animals, you would think rabies was the crisis of the day, not COVID-19.

Last month, the CDC banned dog imports from 113 countries, meaning that diplomats, American service members, and any other U.S. citizens coming from these countries are barred from returning with their dogs, even if the animals have been vaccinated. The policy also puts a halt to transports of rescued animals to the U.S. thanks to the caring, lifesaving work of U.S.-based dog welfare groups, precisely because these nations have limited or no animal-care capacity, and the animals are at extreme risk. There are only the narrowest of exceptions that may be granted.

In contrast, CDC is asleep at the switch when it comes to the urgent, documented threat that mink farms pose when it comes to COVID-19. These mink farms, long known for their inhumane conditions, are viral time bombs operating within the United States.

Mink farms, not dog imports, are a tangible viral threat to the homeland

As documented in a Center for a Humane Economy report entitled in Mink Farming & SARS-CoV-2 and authored by infectious disease specialist Jim Keen, D.V.M., Ph.D., mink pose unique public health risks from SARS-CoV-2:

1) Mink are the only animals beside people that transmit, become sick, and die in large numbers from COVID-19.

2) Mink are the only animals besides people that transmit the COVID-19 virus back to people often in mutated form.

3) Mink are the only animal with a large wild animal reservoir for COVID-19 (i.e., the millions of wild or feral mink in the Northern hemisphere, some of which have already been infected).

There have been COVID-19 outbreaks at more than 440 mink farms in the U.S. and Europe in the last 16 months, with perhaps 25 percent of all mink farms in the U.S. infected. Mink farms in Denmark, France, and the United States have incubated three new variants of SARS-CoV-2, including the Cluster-5 variant that infected thousands of Danes and prompted the government to kill all 17 million mink on the nation’s 1150 farms. Purely because of the public health threat posed by these farms, Denmark went from the biggest mink producer in the world to a tie for last place.

In the Netherlands — which had been the world’s fourth largest producer — public health authorities identified mink farms as super-spreaders, with the family, friends, and co-workers of mink farmers contracting the virus in alarmingly high numbers. That country ordered the deaths of all mink, months before “harvest” time.

Yet in the United States, the CDC and USDA have been worse than passive, brushing aside with false confidence the threat from mink farms, allowing them to operate, and leaving the risk management to state agriculture departments that are either way over their heads in dealing with this crisis. Many of these agencies offer a knee-jerk defense of any form of production agriculture, rather than balancing the needs of the farmers with emerging public health threats.

“If SARS-CoV-2 could design its perfect habitat, it might closely resemble a mink ranch: a highly stressed, immuno-suppressed inbred host with thousands of other mink kept in very small cages,” observed Dr. Keen, who formerly worked as a top U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist and was deployed to several zoonotic disease crises throughout his career. “This environment maximizes chances for infections and mutations.”

Relative risks don’t compare

There are 1.5 to 3 million mink crowded in small, barren wire cages on 60 to 80 farms in the U.S., with the farms not previously regulated by the states or federal government in any meaningful way.

Escaped captive mink can infect wild populations, creating an ineradicable source of SARS-CoV-2 in North America. The presence of SARS-CoV-2 in wild mink means that there is an indefinite threat of mutation and viral spillover back to humans.

And while CDC says a million dogs come into the U.S. annually, there have been just three cases of dogs with rabies entering the country during the last six years. Two of those cases came from Egypt, so one would think out of an abundance of caution, CDC might stop imports from Egypt, but not from 113 nations.

Scientists associated with Animal Wellness wrote to CDC last fall and again just weeks ago to sound the alarm over the threat posed by mink farms, and got a reply that evinced no substantial concern, despite the unique susceptibility of mink to the virus, the documented record of viral superspreading to nearby communities, the emergence of variants on mink farms, and the spread of the virus to wild mink. Yet, while this crisis festers, CDC has found the time to issue a new policy to forbid imports of dogs from more than half of all countries and put so many of those animals at terrible risk, without any evidence that these imports present any meaningful risk to dogs or people within the U.S.

Congress stepping up

Prompted by Animal Wellness and the Center for a Humane Economy, Congress take more decisive action than the CDC or USDA. Earlier this month, some of the most powerful lawmakers in the House introduced legislation, known as the “Minks in Narrowly Kept Spaces Are Superspreaders Act (MINKS Act).” The campaign is led by Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C. and joined as original sponsors by Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, Michael McCaul, R-Texas, Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., Lance Gooden, R-Texas, Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, and David Valadao, R-Calif.

Meanwhile, other lawmakers, led by Reps. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., are seeking to lift the CDC dog import ban through an amendment to be offered this week. Their amendment, cosponsored by a dozen other lawmakers, would provide money to CDC to conduct through screening of dogs coming into the U.S. This new plan would allow the CDC to establish proper protocols for examining dogs on their way into the U.S.

Let’s remember that SARS-CoV-2 almost certainly got its launch at a live-wildlife market in China after serial warnings from animal welfare advocates and infectious disease specialists that these commercial trading posts could spawn the next epidemic or pandemic. We now warn our own government about the documented dangers of mink farms. The latest outbreaks at operations in Poland and Spain are just the latest reminders of the resiliency and adaptability of the virus, which is surging in humans in recent days in major mink-producing states in the U.S. Leaders in European nations have generally been acting with intentionality to confront this viral threat, and we should expect our government to do the same.

Thus far, in looking at its relative responses to animal management policies relating to rabies and COVID-19, CDC has turned risk assessment principles on its head, exhibiting judgment that puts people and animals, our economy, and the normal functioning of our society at risk.