‘Tests are ongoing’: Denmark offers reassurances over mutated coronavirus variant

'Tests are ongoing': Denmark offers reassurances over mutated coronavirus variant
The Danish foreign ministry provided a briefing on Friday on the mink coronavirus variant. Photo: Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix
Government and health officials said on Friday they were concerned but committed to controlling a coronavirus mutation from mink which has resulted in a lockdown in part of Denmark.

The coronavirus variant has resulted in tight restrictions being applied on the North Jutland regions as authorities seek to contain the new variant.

The mutated strain is causing concern because of evidence it could reduce the efficacy of a future vaccine.

Denmark is to cull every single one of up to 17 million minks at fur farms around the country – effectively running aground a billion-kroner industry – in its effort to cut off the variant at its source, foreign minister Jeppe Kofod said at a press briefing on Friday.

Culling will take place “as swiftly as possible”, Kofod said, adding he “cannot underline enough how seriously the Danish government takes this situation”.

Denmark has oriented the WHO, ECDC and European Commission as to the situation, he confirmed.

“We are fully committed to ensuring the current situation is dealt with fully and decisively,” he said.

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Kofod and health officials nevertheless sought to sound a reassuring note at the briefing, at which few questions were taken.

According to information provided at the briefing, coronavirus has been detected at 216 mink farms in Denmark as of Thursday.

“We have seen transmission (of coronavirus from minks) to people working in mink farms and also transmission to the community,” Tyra Grove Krause, head of department for infectious disease epidemiology and prevention with the State Serum Institute (SSI) said.

Five different mink-specific variants of mutated coronavirus have been discovered, of which one – termed ‘cluster 5’ shows a change in spike proteins on the virus.

This could present a problem relating to vaccine efficacy because many of the vaccines in development are targeted towards the spike proteins on the regular coronavirus, Krause explained.

Lab results were returned this week from experiments with the cluster 5 virus and antibodies from recovered Danish Covid-19 patients.

“What we could see was that this variant showed less sensitivity to these neutralising antibodies from recovered patients,” Krause said.

“This is a concern because this may mean that in the future that some of the Covid-19 spike-directed vaccines may be less effective against this variant of the virus,” she said.

“This is not certain. We still need to do ongoing tests and research, but it’s a concern.”

Nevertheless, the result, combined with a joint assessment with health authorities, led to the decision that there was “a considerable public health risk associated with having mink breeding ongoing during a pandemic,” she said.

It also emerged during the briefing that the most recent case of the cluster 5 variant to be detect in a human occurred in September.

Danish Health Authority director Søren Brostrøm described the North Jutland restrictions and mink culling as being taken in part due to an “abundance of caution”. He described the intervention as “timely”, despite the earliest cases in minks having been detected in June.

“We have a very large community transmission amongst people in the seven local communities where we’ve introduced a number of new restrictions,” Brostrøm said.

Almost the entire population of those communities – around 280,000 people – have been asked to be tested within the next two weeks, he said.

“We will get more knowledge about the extent of human transmission in those communities, the extent of mink-related virus in the human population.

“We’ll get to know in the next couple of weeks a lot more about the extent of any mutated virus,” he said.

Krause noted that there is so far no evidence that the cluster 5 variant is more serious or more transmissible than the normal form of Covid-19, but admitted the mutated forms may go on to be detected in other parts of Denmark.

240 cases of mink variant coronavirus infections in humans had been found so far, she said, of which 12 were of the cluster 5 type.

“We don’t know how many have cluster five at this time, but we’ll find out when we sequence all the positive samples from the northern region of Jutland,” she said.

“The vast majority is from that area”.

However, “there’s no data (to suggest) that it’s more serious or more transmissible” than the normal virus, she said, adding that there was “no increased individual risk” to people in North Jutland.


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