An outbreak of COVID-19 at a mink farm in B.C.’s Fraser Valley is renewing calls from animal rights activists to put an end to the fur trade in Canada.
Eight people with connections to the mink farm tested positive for the disease, according to Fraser Health, which has some groups concerned about the possibility of the virus being transmitted to the minks.
“The fact that the workers are sick, it’s very, very likely that the animals are sick,” said Lesley Fox, executive director of the Fur Bearers, a non-profit group advocating for animals.
“Many of these farms have tens of thousands of individual mink and so it’s probably not realistic to test each of them, but of course, any one of them could be carrying the virus and transmitting the virus.”
Less than a week ago, her organization called on provincial health authorities to undertake proactive testing on mink farms. It also called on the federal government to help fur farm owners transition out of the fur industry to “sustainable, green businesses.”
Last month, the Danish government ordered all farmed mink to be culled after finding that 12 people had each been infected by a unique mutated strain of the virus that causes COVID-19, which passed from humans to mink and back to humans.
The World Health Organization has so far identified six countries that had reported SARS-CoV-2 in farmed minks, including Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Italy and the United States.
Health authorities have not specified how transmission occurred on the farm in B.C. Animal samples have been sent to the National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease in Winnipeg for testing.
Negative impact on vaccine efficacy
If the virus was transmitted across species, it’s possible new mutations of the coronavirus will arise, says an internal medicine specialist at the Canada West Veterinary Specialists, Vancouver’s largest animal hospital
“With these mink farms, there’s hundreds, thousands of mink, which we know are susceptible to this virus that are then intermingling,” explained veterinarian Dr. Lauren Adelman.
She says it’s likely people working at the farm are the original source of exposure, and if mink are infected there’s the potential for the virus to mutate within the mink population.
“A lot of those mutations that they’re finding potentially relate to that spike protein, which is obviously concerning because that’s the vaccine target that’s being developed.”
The Ministry of Agriculture says it inspected each of B.C.’s licensed mink farms this fall to ensure enhanced biosecurity measures were in place.
Alan Herscovici, former director of the Fur Council of Canada, believes those measures have been working well so far.
“We’ve been seeing it in mink in Europe and in the United States since the spring. And even if we did have a case here, it would be the first in Canada.”
He says those measures include reducing the number of staff on site, keeping deliveries outside farm gates, screening employees for fever and wearing personal protective equipment when the mink are fed twice a day.
The discovery of mutated strains in Denmark led to 17 million animals being destroyed, including healthy ones outside the northern part of the country where infections were found.
Herscovici says with only 60 mink farms across the country, Canada has a much smaller fur industry than Denmark which is home to up to 1,200 farms.
“So you don’t have that kind of concentration and density that could increase the risk of contagion from one farm to the next,” he said. “So we definitely have an advantage there. It’s not at all the same situation.”
However, Fox says the concentration of at least a dozen farms in the Fraser Valley, each with tens of thousands of minks, is a cause for concern.
“The opportunity to spread is quite high because they’re all within this one area between Langley and Abbotsford,” she said. “It’s also worth mentioning that individual mink escape. It’s a fairly regular occurrence.”
In a statement, WorkSafeBC says it is reaching out directly to other mink farms in B.C. to review and update their COVID-19 safety plans.