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

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.

'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

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.


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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IN NUMBERS: Has the Omicron Covid-19 wave peaked in Denmark?

The number of new Covid-19 infections fell on Saturday for the second day in a row, following a three-day plateau at the start of last week. Has the omicron wave peaked?

IN NUMBERS: Has the Omicron Covid-19 wave peaked in Denmark?
Graffiti in the Copenhagen hippy enclave of Christiania complaining of Omicron's impact on Christmas. Photo: Philip Davali/Scanpix

How many cases, hospitalisations and deaths are there in Denmark? 

Denmark registered 12,588 new cases in the 24 hours leading up to 2pm on Saturday, down from the 18,261 registered on in the day leading up to Friday at 2pm, which was itself a decline from the record 28,283 cases recorded on Wednesday. 

The cases were identified by a total of 174,517 PCR tests, bringing the positive percentage to 7.21 percent, down from the sky high rates of close to 12 percent seen in the first few days of January. 

The number of cases over the past seven days is lower than the week before in almost every municipality in Denmark, with only Vallensbæk, Aarhus, Holseterbro, Skanderborg, Hjørring, Vordingborg,  Ringkøbing, Kolding, Assens, Horsens, Thisted, and Langeland reporting rises. 

Hospitalisations have also started to fall, with some 730 patients being treated for Covid-10 on Saturday, down from 755 on Friday. On Tuesday, 794 were being treated for Covid-19 in Danish hospitals, the highest number since the peak of the 2020-21 winter wave.

The only marker which has not yet started to fall is the number of deaths, which tends to trail infections and hospitalisations. 

In the 24 hours leading up to 2pm on Saturday, Denmark registered 28 deaths with Covid-19, the highest daily number recorded since 20 January 2021, when 29 people died with Covid-19 (although Denmark’s deadliest day was the 19 January 2021, when 39 people died). 

How does Denmark compare to other countries in Europe? 

Over the last seven days, Denmark has had the highest Covid-19 case rate of any country in Europe bar Ireland. The number of new infections in the country has climbed steadily since the start of December, apart from a brief fall over Christmas. 

So does this mean the omicron wave has peaked? 

Maybe, although experts are not sure. 

“Of course, you can hope for that, but I’m not sure that is the case,” said Christian Wejse, head of the Department for Infectious Diseases at Aarhus University Hospital. “I think it is too early to conclude that the epidemic has peaked.”

He said that patients with the Omicron variant were being discharged more rapidly on average than had been the case with those who had the more dangerous Delta variant. 

“Many admissions are relatively short-lived, thankfully. This is because many do not become that il, and are largely hospitalized because they are suffering with something else. And if they are stable and do not need oxygen, then they are quickly discharged again.” 

Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said during a visit to an event held by the Social Liberal party that the latest numbers made her even more optimistic about the coming month. 

“We have lower infection numbers and the number of hospitalisations is also plateauing,” she said. “I think we’re going to get through this winter pretty well, even if it will be a difficult time for a lot of people, and we are beginning to see the spring ahead of us, so I’m actually very optimistic.” 

She said that she had been encouraged by the fact that Omicron was a “visibly less dangerous variant if it is not allowed to explode.”