SALEM, Ore. — Environmental groups are raising alarms after reports of COVID-19 outbreaks in farmed mink in the United States, and of a mutant COVID-19 strain spreading from mink to humans in Denmark.
The nation’s largest farmed mink industries are found in Wisconsin, Utah and Michigan. And as of Nov. 4, 11 mink farms in the three states had reported COVID-19 outbreaks.
In Wisconsin, about 3,400 farmed mink have died over the past month after contracting the virus. And in Utah, about 10,000 mink have died since August.
Oregon has the nation’s fourth-largest farmed mink industry, with 11 licensed mink farms, but state officials contend there’s no reason to be concerned.
“Currently there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to people,” said Andrea Cantu-Schomus, communications director for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
“In addition, there have been no reports of deaths in mink in Oregon to date,” she said, adding that the state will not do inspections or testing in response to outbreaks elsewhere.
COVID-19 is a reportable disease in Oregon. But that doesn’t apply to fur producers because they cannot legally diagnose a disease, Cantu-Schomus said. Veterinarians, however must report it.
Denmark kills 17 million mink
In early November, Denmark announced it would kill all 17 million of the mink raised there after the Danish Health Minister confirmed 12 people had been infected with a mutated strain of COVID-19 that had spread from mink to humans.
Other animals have contracted the virus from people, but this was believed to be the first time humans had caught it from an animal.
Danish authorities said they feared the mutated strain could undermine the efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine.
In response, the World Health Organization has advised all countries to enhance surveillance for COVID-19 at mink farms.
In addition to Denmark and the United States, COVID-19 infections have been reported in farmed mink in the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Italy and Greece, according to the WHO.
This week, Poland began testing mink for coronavirus.
Seeking action in Oregon
On Nov. 6, the Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter to officials at the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Oregon Health Authority, asking them to immediately send inspectors to all mink farms to ensure they don’t imperil public health.
“We do not wish to spread alarm; however, we are deeply concerned that these facilities could, knowingly or unknowingly, be contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in the state, or could even house or come to house new mutations of COVID-19, like the one discovered in Denmark,” the group wrote.
Over the past few weeks, national animal rights groups Animal Wellness Action and Center for a Humane Economy sent letters to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asking them to immediately quarantine mink farms across the country, stop breeding programs and implement a buy-out to phase out mink farms.
They also wrote Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, asking her to impose a state quarantine and halt breeding programs, and to coordinate with federal agencies on a buy-out.
Brown’s office did not respond to a request for comment from the Statesman Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture and Oregon Health Authority said they are working together to draft responses. They don’t plan to take any of the groups’ recommendations, but will explain what they are doing, according to Cantu-Schomus.
“CDC guidelines recommend against testing unless there are consistent symptoms on a mink farm with a potential history of exposure. Because Oregon has not had any reports of mortalities, the ODA is not testing at this time,” Cantu-Schomus said.
“Rather, ODA and the state veterinarian have been engaged with the Oregon mink industry providing information on biosecurity, as well as specific steps to take in order to prevent the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 into mink farms,” she said.
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‘Taking the necessary steps’
Fur Commission USA, based in Oregon, is a national nonprofit representing mink farmers.
Michael Whelan, its executive director, declined an interview request from the Statesman Journal.
In a written statement, he accused animal rights organizations of exploiting the situation to advance their political agendas.
“Animal welfare is a farmer’s entire livelihood. We are taking the necessary steps, as recommended by the CDC, the USDA, and the respective state veterinarians, to protect workers and animals from this virus,” Whelan wrote.
Follow Tracy Loew on Twitter at @Tracy_Loew.