Jan Hajek and Lesley Fox: COVID-19 risk means B.C. should shut down mink farms now

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      By Jan Hajek and Lesley Fox

      We should ban mink farms in B.C., and we should to do it now.

      Large mink fur farms in B.C. cause unnecessary suffering to thousands of curious, intelligent, and beautiful animals. And mink, like humans, are susceptible to COVID-19. Massive uncontrolled outbreaks of COVID-19 on mink farms in Europe have highlighted that these outbreaks present a serious public health risk.

      There is uncertainty regarding the exact level of risk associated with outbreaks of COVID-19 on mink farms—but there is definitely a risk. Thousands of mink are kept close to each other in small wire cages on these farms. Under these conditions, outbreaks of COVID-19 can spread like wildfire and develop new mutations, and this can create parallel epidemics in animals that could impair our response to the pandemic.

      The potential exists for the infection to be established in a nonhuman animal population and, like animal strains of influenza, for these viruses to be reintroduced again once the current epidemic in humans is controlled.

      Together, we wrote about these risks back in July. The Vancouver Sun published our article, as well as a rebuttal written by a fur-industry spokesperson. The rebuttal downplayed the risks of zoonotic disease, made a mistake about the frequency of inspections, and lauded fur-farm welfare standards—standards that include anal electrocution of foxes raised in small wire cages, using rectal probes and metal bite bars.

      Since July, the discovery of mink-adapted strains of the virus on fur farms in Europe—with mutations that may impair our antibody response and raised concerns about vaccine efficacy—have been another wake-up call.

      In response to the risks, many countries have acted proactively to protect public health and, guided by public opinion, have moved to stop mink fur farming. But here in Canada, we have fallen behind and continue to prop up the fur farms with millions of dollars of government subsidies and taxpayer money.

      There are more than one million mink kept in small wire cages on farms across Canada. In B.C., we have the third-highest number of mink in the country, most of which are located on large farms in the Fraser Valley, not far from Vancouver.

      Mink farm in Wisconsin, U.S., in 2007.
      Wikimedia Commons/Royalbroil

      Aware of the risks, the B.C. government has contacted mink farmers and recommended several measures, like wearing face masks, to try to reduce the risks. These infection-control measures are important, but they are not foolproof. By continuing to keep thousands of mink together on farms, the industry is continuing to take chances and put others at risk.

      Notably, the provincial government has not announced any proactive screening for COVID-19 on fur farms. The surveillance for COVID-19 seems to depend on fur farmers reporting obviously sick or dying animals to veterinarians and authorities for testing.

      The concern with this approach is that it may miss milder cases and is more susceptible to underreporting of cases, given the negative impact they may have on the industry’s profits. Fur farmers in other regions have been quite vocal in their opposition to increased COVID-19 testing on their farms. It is important to note that in 2009, during the H1N1 swine-derived influenza pandemic, farmer-initiated testing for influenza on pig farms in Canada actually decreased.

      We have to seriously ask ourselves what amount of risk we as a society are willing to tolerate and impose on others for the pleasure of a few. Not only do large mink fur farms cause suffering to animals, ecological harm, and eutrophication, they pose an unnecessary risk for us.

      This December, when mink in B.C. will be killed for fur, as a public health measure we could end the practice and support the owners and workers to transition.

      Public opinion is on our side; all that is needed is political support. Please join us in writing to your MLA and your MP to share your concerns.

      Jan Hajek is an infectious-diseases specialist working at Vancouver General Hospital on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response. Lesley Fox is executive director of The Fur-Bearers, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting fur-bearing animals in the wild and in confinement.