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MINKS

What you need to know about minks and the coronavirus

Farmed for their soft fur, minks are the only animal proven to both contract the new coronavirus and reinfect humans, thereby compromising efforts to stop the spread of the virus.

What you need to know about minks and the coronavirus
Photo: Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen/Reuters/Ritzau Scanpix

While the small creatures haven't played a major role in the spread of the virus so far, alarm bells were recently sounded in Denmark.

When did minks start getting infected?

The first case of a mink being infected with the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and a mink farm worker subsequently being infected, was registered in the Netherlands in April, according to a recent report by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

“It has been established that human-to-mink and mink-to-human transmission can occur,” the ECDC wrote.

Since then, mink infections have been reported in a number of other countries, including Denmark, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the United States.

In Denmark, the world's biggest exporter of mink pelts and the country hardest hit by mink infections, more than 280 mink farms were contaminated and the minks culled.

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A total of 373 people in Denmark have been infected with one of several mutated mink strains, according to the most recent tally last week.

While several animals, such as cats, can become infected with the new coronavirus, they are currently not known to reinfect people.

Why minks then? According to the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety, minks are more likely to reinfect humans because the animals are more likely to get a heavy viral load in their crowded cages and therefore be more infectious.

What danger does all this pose to humans?

The mutated mink strains are no more contagious or dangerous to humans than other strains of the virus, according to the ECDC.

But scientists have warned that minks could become a viral source that could both easily infect people and lead to new mutations.

The ECDC has urged member states to beef up testing at mink farms.

In most of the affected countries, minks at contaminated farms have been slaughtered. Some countries, such as Ireland, have decided to cull their stocks even though they have not registered any cases.

Why did Denmark sound the alarm?

RNA viruses like the novel coronavirus that first appeared in China at the end of 2019 regularly mutate without any major consequences.

But in early November, experts from Denmark's infectious disease institute SSI identified a new mink strain, dubbed “Cluster 5”, that had infected 12 people in August and September.

The strain has a mutation in the gene encoding the coronavirus' spike protein, which it uses to enter cells. This concerned experts because changes in this region could affect the immune system's ability to detect the infection, as many vaccines train the immune system to block the spike protein.

As a result, any future vaccine against Covid-19 could be less effective on this strain.

Following the discovery, the Danish government, which had already ordered infected farms to cull their animals, announced the slaughter of all of the country's 15 to 17 million minks.

It also imposed strict restrictions on the 280,000 people living in the regions where the human cases of “Cluster 5” had occurred.

Authorities last week announced that no new cases of “Cluster 5” had been detected in minks or people since mid-September, and said the strain was “most likely” extinct.

Scientists remain cautious about the real danger the mutation posed to vaccines.

It “could… have an impact on the effectiveness of developed vaccine candidates”, but “investigations and studies are ongoing to clarify the extent of these possible implications,” the ECDC noted. 

What does this mean for the mink industry?

The slaughter of all minks in Denmark and the Netherlands means the industry — which provides pelts to fashion houses — will never recover, according to farmers who say it takes more than 10 years to cultivate minks with top quality fur.

Even before the virus, the sector had struggled in recent years with growing opposition to wearing fur.

Some countries have already banned mink farming, while several major fashion houses such as Chanel and Gucci have stopped using fur, with “fur prices dropping sharply as a result. In fact fur farming hasn't been a profitable business for years,” Joh Vinding, head of animal rights association Anima, told AFP.

According to Statistics Denmark, mink pelt exports fell by 63 percent between 2013 and 2019, to 4.9 billion kroner (657 millions euros).

China is the world's biggest market for furs.

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COVID-19

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.” 

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