Compiled by the International Fur Federation on November 18, 2020
Facts of the matter
- There is a temporary measure to cull mink in Denmark due to a strain (“Cluster 5”) of coronavirus.
- The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control notes that concerns around the mutation’s impact on vaccine efficacy lack supporting evidence.
- The organization has also set out a range of responses national authorities should take, including monitoring, biosecurity, and animal and human testing. It does not include a blanket cull of mink.
- The same rapid risk assessment noted that processed (fur) pelts are not considered a source of SARS-CoV2, and therefore the probability of spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants is considered very low.
- The World Organization for Animal Health has stressed that “although several animal species have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, these infections are not a driver of the COVID-19 pandemic; the pandemic is driven by human to human transmission”.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control: rapid risk assessment
- The organization’s rapid risk assessment (12th November 2020) concluded that based on the information currently available on transmissibility, severity, immunity and cross-border spread, the overall level of risk to human health posed by SARS-CoV-2 mink-related variants can be determined as:
Low for the general population and moderate for medically-vulnerable individuals, which is no different to other SARS-CoV-2 strains (not related to mink);
Low for the general population in areas with a high concentration of mink farms and moderate-to-high for medically-vulnerable individuals living in the same areas;
Moderate for non-medically vulnerable individuals with occupational exposure and very high for medically vulnerable individuals with occupational exposure.
- The organization also notes that concerns around this mutation’s impact on vaccine efficacy lack supporting evidence: “the issue of mutation of SARS-CoV-2 posing a risk for vaccine efficacy and effectiveness still has to be confirmed, and further studies are needed.
- Significantly, the organization notes that national authorities should consider a range of conventional options, including human testing; infection prevention and control for workers; animal testing and prevention of spread from animals; and the development of preparedness and response strategies.
WHO assessment: evidence-led approach and biosecurity measures
- WHO spokesperson (Dr Margaret Harris) said that the global risk associated with the new mink-related mutation is very low; that the “cluster 5” mutation must be monitored; and that some members of the international community and the media have misunderstood the threat level.
- WHO chief scientists (Soumya Swaminathan) said “mutations [in viruses] are normal. These type of changes in the virus are something we have been tracking since the beginning […] We need to wait and see what the implications are, but I don’t think we should come to any conclusions about whether this particular mutation is going to impact vaccine efficacy”.
Scientists: little cause for vaccine concern
- Crucially, in recent days there has been growing scientific and medical opinion (University of Copenhagen and the University of Aarhus) concludes that there is little clear cause for concern that a vaccine would be less effective against the so-called “cluster 5” variant of coronavirus.
- Anthony Fauci (US top infectious disease official): “…it does not appear at this point that the mutation that has been identified in the minks is going to have an impact on vaccines and the effect of the vaccine-induced immune response”.
- Professor Jens Lundgren (Rigshospitalet in Denmark): “There is nothing in the report that gives reason to conclude that this particular mutation may constitute a danger to a vaccine”.
Brands and manufacturers: ‘furs themselves are not a source of SARS-CoV-2 infections’
- Given the significant number of brands and manufacturers working with fur, there are obvious and important questions to address around coronavirus and the fur pelts used in manufacturing.
- In short: the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control does not consider pelts are not a source of SARS-CoV2.
- Tarja Sironen (Associate Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases, University of Helsinki) noted in his memo (12th June 2020) that furs themselves are not a source of SARS-CoV-2 infections:
Animal sources of SARS-CoV-2 are rare, but possible, and include mink. Human coronaviruses persist on surfaces for hours depending on the environmental conditions and the surface material, the persistence being poor in warm and dry conditions. SARS-CoV-2 persists in air for at least three hours.
Based on the accumulated data and the processes used for production of fur, furs themselves are not a source of SARS-CoV-2 infections. Surface contamination of the furs by an infected person might occur as for any other piece of clothing or surface.
- The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s rapid risk assessment (12th November 2020) considered the processing of mink pelts. Looking at the entire process, carried out by trained and protected personnel, they recognized that it ensures all traces of the virus (if indeed present to start with) are removed, confirmed that the processed pelts are not considered a source of SARS-CoV2, and concluded that probability of spread is ‘very low’:
When mink are pelted, the drying process and the storage period will reduce the virus load on pelts, although this may not completely inactivate the virus, which may remain viable on the raw pelts transported to other areas for further processing. Additional contamination of raw pelts by an infected person cannot be excluded. Processed pelts are considered to be safe, as SARS-CoV-2 is inactivated in the chemical tanning processing. In the tanning process detergents, antibacterial agents, potassium alum and other salts dissolved in water are used. The tanning process lasts 4-5 days during which the leather undergoes washing, fattening and other mechanical operations to improve its quality, often in acidic pH baths. The procedures applied, carried out by trained and protected personnel, the acidity of the baths and the execution times do not favor the survival, proliferation and transmission of bacteria or viruses.
The storage, drying and/or tanning process, requiring many washes and the further drying of the product, will ensure that all trace of the virus is removed. Based on these data, processed pelts are not considered a source of SARS-CoV2, and therefore the probability of spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants from processed pelts is considered very low.
- As the rapid risk assessment recognized, the actual processing of the fur ‘do[es] not favor the survival, proliferation and transmission of bacteria or viruses’. The World Organization for Animal Health, while even more cautious in its assessment, stressed that “further research is needed to better understand the risks of contaminated pelts and fur from animals on farms with SARS-CoV-2”.
Danish Government: decision taken with “heavy heart”
- Coronavirus has been reported in mink on 237 farms in Jutland, Denmark; the northwest of the country in a four-week lockdown, 12 people have reportedly contracted a mutated strain (“Cluster 5”) of coronavirus. The cull includes up to 17 million animals including all those from the 900 farms that are currently outside of the quarantine area.
- It must be recognized that the Danish Government’s move (based on the Statens Serum Institute risk assessment) is problematic. WHO has “stressed that mutations are happening all the time and the vast majority do not change the fundamental behaviour of Sars-Cov-2”. The reaction could ultimately be disproportionate. The Statens Serum Institute has not claimed that this mutation is more contagious.
- The Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, said the decision had been taken with a “heavy heart” as she apologized to mink farmers for destroying their “life’s work”. The Danish Government has been unambiguous and remains supportive of the fur sector.
Global perspective: limited infections, limited impact
- Mink in various countries (due to susceptibility) have been found to have It is not the case that they have “Cluster 5”. Mink are, however, known to be susceptible to coronavirus, and like humans, can show a range of symptoms (from no symptoms at all to severe problems).
- In Sweden, the Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer (Lena Hellqvist Björnerot) confirmed that “movement restrictions and strict biosecurity measures have been imposed on all mink farms in Sweden, and not only for those infected”. Their statement reiterated the fact that “none of the amino acid mutations described on the spike protein of the recent Danish mink SARS-CoV-2 viruses is so far present in the spike gene of the Swedish mink SARS-CoV-2 viruses”. They also confirmed explicitly that they “do not intend to cull the animals at this point” and “culling will have limited effect”.
- In the US, a similar approach has been adopted The Department of Agriculture has been clear: “we believe that quarantining affected mink farms in addition to implementing stringent biosecurity measures will succeed in controlling SARS-CoV-2 at these locations”. The US states of Utah, Wisconsin and Michigan (where the coronavirus has killed mink) reiterated that there are no plans for a cull.
- In Canada, there are no indications of coronavirus. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed that: “there are no known cases of COVID-19 on mink farms in Ontario or Canada”. Canada has approximately 70 farms and circa 2 million mink.
- In Italy, which the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control includes in its list of countries where infections in mink have been reported, the actual result was a single infection: “one weak positive”. They also noted that “we can assume that virus circulation did not [take] place in the farm and the diagnostic results could be attributed to a contamination or a specific response”. In response, circa 1,500 mink were tested and no further cases were detected and surveillance activities are ongoing.
- In Spain, a small number of infections (>80) were found in mink at a single farm in July and “no clinical symptoms were observed among the animals”. Further hygiene and biosecurity measures were put in place and the movements restricted.
- In Lithuania, the Agriculture Ministry is monitoring the situation: there have been no infections.
- In Finland, no infections have been detected in mink.
- In Greece, coronavirus has been found in mink at two farms in the north of the country.
- In Poland, the Chief Veterinary Inspectorate is due to conduct tests in four administrative regions. The results are expected at the end of November. At present, there is no evidence of infection.
Industry response: working with authorities, scientists, and evidence
- Thanks to existing and developing animal welfare and assurance schemes. Fur farming is governed by strict national and international laws. The fur industry is a vital partner here and necessary for implementing the range of measures required.
- Market demand (particularly for mink) is strong; prices and sales remain equally strong.
- The roll-out of Furmark®—the global animal welfare and sustainability assurance for fur—continues.