SARS-CoV-2 is, by and large, a virus that affects two species: humans (Homo sapiens) and American mink (Neovison vison).
Public health authorities tracking the progression of the COVID-19 virus in humans confirm about 375 million cases, but the best guess is about 10 percent of 7.8 billion people in the world have been infected. That number will climb more rapidly with the emergence of variants, which are sure to come.
There has been a parallel progression of the virus in mink, with infected mink farmworkers passing the virus to captive mink on fur farms. The virus can infect as many as 90 percent of animals crowded on factory farms after the initial transmission.
In North America and Europe, there have been approximately 6 to 7 million mink infected with SARS-CoV-2, with approximately 675,000 dying from the virus. That’s more than 10 percent of the global population of about 60 million mink kept in factory farms from Utah and New Brunswick to Denmark and Finland to Russia and China.
These startling numbers contrast with perhaps just 100-500 known COVID-19 infections among all other non-human animals, including big cats, domesticated dogs and cats, White-tailed deer, gorillas, and ferrets. Perhaps more importantly, there has been no spill-back from these other species. They appear to be dead-end hosts, while humans and mink are bilateral spreaders of the virus.
So when it comes to the emergence of new variants outside of the human species, there are mink. And basically only mink.
Mink farms have already spawned three variants – in Denmark, France, and the United States. Variants may, in the months ahead, compromise human vaccine effectiveness or increase human virus virulence or transmissibility. In fact, if SARS-CoV-2 could design its perfect habitat, it might closely resemble a mink factory farm: highly stressed, immuno-suppressed inbred hosts with thousands of other such potential hosts kept in very small cages. This environment maximizes chances for intraspecific aggression, viral infections, and mutations.
When it comes to COVID-19, live-wildlife markets don’t compare to mink farms as incubators of a new variant. They are by far and away the most dangerous incubators and super-spreaders of the virus. These claims are supported in the Center for a Humane Economy’s conclusive 102-page report entitled “Mink Farming & SARS-CoV-2.“
Public Health Authorities in Europe Grasp the Risk
It’s in recognition of those problems that many major mink-farming nations are shuttering the farms. Denmark’s mass shutdown of its industry in 2020 — requiring the abrupt gassing of 17 million mink — was the first major act of animal disaster response, after SARS-CoV-2 infected hundreds of farms and a variant started ricocheting through the Scandinavian nation. Netherlands followed and killed its four million mink as a COVID-19 containment strategy.
It’s been a cascade of actions and declarations since then, with Italy and Latvia the two most recent nations signaling that mink farming is a calamity in the making, producing minor revenues that don’t warrant the cruelty or the contagion. A large majority of nations are backing a proposal to ban fur farming in the E.U., which before the pandemic accounted for 30 million of the world’s 60 million mink killed on fur farms. Over time, nearly 20 nations in Europe have decided that mink farms must go.
Inaction by U.S. Could Cause U.S. Mink Farms to Surge in Number
If Europe bans these mink farms, and the United States fails to act, then we might see the U.S. mink farming industry, which has been in steady decline, rise again. An industry that kills 1.4 to 3 million mink a year on just 60 farms entirely for export could rise again if the U.S. government does not act.
But last week, U.S. Representatives Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Nancy Mace, R-S.C., and Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, filed an amendment to the America COMPETES Act to ban mink farming. That bill may come up for a vote today in the House Rules Committee, and if approved, the House of Representatives would take up the bill later this week. The DeLauro-Mace-DeFazio amendment is identical to H.R. 4310, the “MINKS Are Superspreaders Act.” The bill and the amendment amend the Lacey Act to stop trade in captive mink and their parts.
The Risks of Mink Farms Dwarf Their Rewards
The Fur Commission USA, the trade association for mink farmers, has stated that mink farms are exhibiting state-of-the-art biosecurity at their farms. But a New York Times Magazine reporter, in a long-form piece published in January, found a very different scenario on the ground. Sonia Shah reported the following:
- Deliberate non-compliance of mink farmers with CDC, USDA, and state public health and agriculture COVID-19 recommendations and policies including on-farm biosecurity.
- Inadequate, essentially non-existent “self-reported” SARS-CoV-2 outbreak surveillance of mink farms by the CDC, USDA, and state agencies.
- Industry secrecy including routine escape of animals risking COVID-19 spread to wildlife.
Mink are wild, solitary, territorial, and aggressive carnivores. Housing them in groups in small cages is a prescription for aggression and even cannibalism. There are kept in in these tight quarters for a maximum lifespan of eight months, with less powerful and aggressive animals especially vulnerable. No amount of good animal husbandry can prevent this kind of aggression between these captive wild animals.
Mink are the only animal with a large potential wild animal reservoir for COVID (i.e. the millions of wild or feral mink in the Northern hemisphere). Captive mink, who are escape artists, can infect wild populations, creating an ineradicable source of SARS-CoV-2, just as rabies, plague, and brucellosis have taken permanent hold in wildlife populations in the U.S. The presence of SARS-CoV-2 in wild mink means that there is an indefinite threat of mutation and viral spillover back to humans.
U.S. mink veterinary vaccines against COVID-19, which are still in development, are no panacea and may even be detrimental to control of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The reality is, a small number of people continue to aggregate these uniquely vulnerable non-human carnivores on factory farms to generate a luxury product that few people want or need and that generates negligible income for a few dozen farmers. Eighty percent of all of the pelts go to thin strata of luxury consumers in China, yet Americans in our homeland face the startlingly dangerous disease and ecological risks presented by these live-wildlife fur producers.
If we are serious about gauging pandemic risks, our attention today should focus on the DeLauro-Mace-DeFazio amendment.
Take action by contacting your lawmakers about this human and animal health crisis in the making.
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Wayne Pacelle is a New York Times bestselling author and President of Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy. He has led efforts to pass 1,500 state laws for animals, more than 100 federal laws and amendments, 30 ballot initiatives, and 500 corporate agreements. He is a graduate of Yale University.