Cluster 5 Corona Virus – The end of the fur trade?

Has Corona Virus ‘killed off’ the Fur Trade forever?

Picture Credit: Mads Claus Rasmussen/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

According to a 2016 report released by the Chinese Academy of Engineering, 75% of China’s wildlife trade is dominated by fur production with animals farmed for their fur, such as raccoon dogs, foxes and mink, often ending up at wildlife wet market.

Transmission of the virus from mink to humans, and mutations related to mink, were first documented in the Netherlands, which prompted the government to bring forward to the end of 2020 a ban on mink farming scheduled to go into effect in 2024. After the discovery in the Netherlands, the authorities in Denmark initiated a large-scale surveillance program of all mink farms in the country, with regular testing and genomic sequencing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed that cases of minks ill with COVID-19 had been documented in Utah in August 2020.

As of 9 November 2020, COVID-19 infections in mink have been reported in Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United States. (China, the world’s largest fur farmer is noticeable by its absence of any reports on corona virus in other species).

This prompted Denmark to announce its intention to cull all mink in the countries mink farms  – as many as 17 million. At present, 207 mink farms in Jutland are affected – and at least five cases of the new virus strain were found. The Danish government confirmed Twelve people had become infected. Denmark’s Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, said the mutated virus posed a “risk to the effectiveness” of a future Covid-19 vaccine. Ms Frederiksen cited a government report which said the mutated virus had been found to weaken the body’s ability to form antibodies, potentially making the current vaccines under development for Covid-19 ineffective.

Fur Farms – The Facts

Picture Credit: Getty Images

More than 50 million mink a year are bred for their fur, mainly in China, Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland. At the time of writing (mid November 2020) outbreaks have been reported in fur farms in the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Sweden and the US, and millions of animals have had to be culled.

Mink, like other mammal species, are known to be susceptible to coronavirus, and like humans, they can show a range of symptoms, from no signs of illness at all, to severe problems, such as pneumonia.

Mink become infected through catching the virus from humans. But genetic detective work has shown that in a small number of cases, in the Netherlands and now Denmark, the virus seems to have passed the other way, from mink to humans. Last month, it was revealed that lions and tigers at a New York zoo had caught covid-19 from their keepers. 

Covid Cluster 5

“Cluster 5” is the name given to a mutated variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It was discovered in Northern Jutland, Denmark, and is believed to have been spread from minks to humans via mink farms. On 4 November 2020, it was announced that the mink population in Denmark would be culled in order to prevent possible spread of this mutation and reduce the risk of new mutations happening.

The World Health Organization stated that Cluster 5 has a “moderately decreased sensitivity to neutralising antibodies”. Denmark’s State Serum Institute (SSI) warned that the mutation could reduce the effect of COVID-19 vaccines under development, although it was unlikely to render them useless.

Covid 19 Cluster 5 Name and mutations

In Denmark there have been five clusters of mink variants of SARS-CoV-2; the Danish State Serum Institute (SSI) has designated these as clusters 1–5 (Danish: cluster 1-5). Among these variants, seven different mutations in the spike protein of the virus have been confirmed. The specific mutations mentioned were del 69–70 (a deletion of the histidine and valine residues at the 69th and 70th position in the protein), Y453F (a change from tyrosine to phenylalanine at position 453, inside the spike protein’s receptor-binding domain), I692V (isoleucine to valine at position 692), and M1229I (methionine to isoleucine at position 1229).

‘Cluster 5’

Covid-19 originally came from a wild animal, it was then transmitted to humans and, later, passed back to a small number of humans.

Several different mutations have been discovered within corona virus in mink, that do not arise in humans. But tests have found that patient antibodies responded less well to Cluster 5 and further laboratory investigations are being carried out.

How different is Cluster 5 to the more common strain of Covid-19?

At first scientists thought that the way the virus looks clinically, its severity and its rate of transmission among those infected was similar to that of other circulating SARS-CoV-2 viruses. However, further studies have shown it has a combination of mutations that were not previously observed.

Initially mink were infected after coming into contact with infected humans. Other animals, including dogs, cats, lions and tigers have contracted Covid-19 via respiratory droplets. Mink can act as a reservoir of SARS-CoV-2, passing the virus between them, and pose a risk for virus spill-over from mink to humans. As viruses move between human and animal populations, genetic modifications can occur.

It’s not that surprising that mink have been infected. The list of mammal species infected during the 2003 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak, was at least 16, including mink, palm civets, fruit bats, several species of horseshoe bat, red fox, wild boar, raccoon dog, and domestic cats and dogs.

Officials in The Netherlands believe mink contracted the illness from farm workers and the farms have since been put into quarantine. The Netherlands stopped the creation of new mink farms in 2013, while existing mink fur farms had until 2024 to close. Due to the Covid pandemic the closures have been brought forward and all mink farming in The Netherlands will stop at the end of 2020.

4. World Health Authority – WHO

In their statement released on 6th November 2020, the World Health Authority (WHO) stated that; “Initial observations suggest that the clinical presentation, severity and transmission among those infected are similar to that of other circulating SARS-CoV-2 viruses,” “However, this variant… the ‘cluster 5’ variant, had a combination of mutations, or changes that have not been previously observed. The implications of the identified changes in this variant are not yet well understood,”

The UN said preliminary findings indicated this mink-associated variant has “moderately decreased sensitivity to neutralising antibodies”.

WHO called for further studies to verify the preliminary findings and “to understand any potential implications of this finding in terms of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines in development”, adding “Although the virus is believed to be ancestrally linked to bats, its origin and intermediate host(s) of SARS-CoV-2 have not yet been identified,”

According to the WHO statement, since June 2020 there have been 214 human cases of Covid-19 in Denmark with SARS-CoV-2, or Covid-19, variants associated with farmed mink. Of those, 12 cases had a unique variant, with all those cases identified in September 2020 in North Jutland, Denmark.

The virus was found the unique variant in people aged from 7 to 79 years, and eight had a link to the mink farming industry and four cases were from the local community. To date, six countries – Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Italy and the US – have reported SARS-CoV-2 in farmed mink to the World Organisation for Animal Health.

Mink Culls

Picture Credit: Getty Images

Denmark has ordered the culling of all mink animals in fur farms, estimated to be around 17.5 million individuals. One in five Danish fur farms have recorded covid infections in Mink.

But this problem isn’t new – back in July, Spain culled 100,000 mink after cases were detected at a farm in Aragón province, and tens of thousands of the animals were slaughtered in the Netherlands following outbreaks on farms there. The US then confirmed Covid cases in farmed Mink in Utah in August 2020.

Within the last week, Poland has found 18 cases of coronavirus among mink farm workers as it continues tests among the animals. While the authorities have not yet received results of the animal tests, they said that COVID-19 cases were confirmed among people connected with the farms

Poland is one of the world’s top producers of mink fur, with 354 farms, containing around 6 million mink.

Ireland’s Department of Agriculture has informed the owners of three mink farms in Ireland that their animals are to be culled to halt the potential spread of a mutated form of the Covid-19. Irish CMS,Dr Holohan, said ‘ the move would be advised as the presence of farmed minks presents an ongoing risk to public health” Dr Holohan went on to state “that all mink should be culled as a matter of urgency”.

Why this should be the end of Fur farming

Picture Credit: The Wildlife Trusts

One of the lessons we must learn from Covid-19 is that we cannot carry on pushing animals to the limit of their endurance without serious consequences for both animal and human health

The Fur trade had a reported turnover of almost $1bn (£750m) in 2018-19. Furs are sold to the garment industry but also used in a vast array of products, incluidng, some false eyelash products. China and Hong Kong in particular are the largest markets.

Coronavirus outbreaks have already spelled the end of the mink industry in the Netherlands. The UK and Austria banned fur production years ago, Germany has phased it out and Belgium, France and Norway plan to as well.

Now it’s time for countries such as Denmark, Poland, the USA and China to end this horrorific trade in animal furs and belts.

The appalling conditions and lack of space that these animals are forced to live in, the mutations of coat colours they endure through breeding and the barbaric execution methods, including an electrical probe inserted into the anus to avoid damaging the pelt, have no place in any society. We do not need to wear fur, we have many alternatives that look and perform equal to, or better than fur. It seems odd to me that wearing the fur of a dead animal could ever be considered as ‘glamorous’

Now that fur farming has stopped and no longer has ‘live animals’ this is the time to end the trade for good. In addition to the animal suffering, the potential for disease spread is another reason for all fashion companies to go fur-free NOW!

Wildlife Matters Blog Post

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