Dutch Minks on Fur Farms Contract Coronavirus and Appear to Infect Humans

A file photo of a mink at a fur farm in Belarus.
REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Minks on two fur farms in the Netherlands began getting sick in late April. Some were coughing, with runny noses; others had signs of severe respiratory disease. Soon, they started dying.

Researchers took swabs from the animals and dissected the ones that had died.

The culprit: SARS-COV-2, the novel coronavirus causing a global pandemic.

It’s part of an emerging pattern of animals getting infected with the novel coronavirus with a new concern: The minks are thought to have passed the disease back to humans. Since the discovery, more than 500,000 minks have been culled on fur farms in the Netherlands over worries that their mink populations could spread the virus among humans.

The minks were first exposed to the coronavirus by infected farm workers, according to Wim van der Poel, a veterinarian who studies viruses at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. Then the virus spread among the animals in the farms like wildfire.

“The animals are in cages with wire tops and closed walls between them,” says Van der Poel, who co-authored a Eurosurveillance paper investigating the mink farm infections that was published this month. “So it probably spread through droplet or aerosol transmission, from the top of one cage to another, when an animal is coughing or heavily breathing.”

The Netherlands is one of the world’s top exporters of mink fur for coats and trim. The outbreak was first reported on two of its approximately 125 farms and has now been found in at least 17. Van der Poel says the virus was likely spread to more farms either from infected workers who traveled between locations or from virus-contaminated products that moved from one farm to another.

Minks are the latest addition to the list of animals that we know can be infected with the novel coronavirus, says Linfa Wang, director of the emerging infectious diseases program at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. “The first one we noticed was cats,” he says. “Then it was followed by dogs, which are susceptible but not as much as cats. And then the tigers in the New York zoo. And now the minks.” Laboratory experiments have also confirmed that hamsters and some monkeys can also get sick from the virus. And the virus is believed to have originated in Chinese horseshoe bats.

The findings from the mink farm adds an concerning layer to our understanding of how the virus spreads because infected minks are thought to have passed the virus back to people, according to Dutch government reports. At least two farm workers are believed to have caught the novel coronavirus from handling the minks or breathing virus-contaminated clouds of dust.

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SOURCE: NPR, Pien Huang