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Coronavirus: The Mink Mutation

Published on 16 November 2020 at 16:22

As Pfizer continues to ramp up production for their promising covid-19 vaccine, a new coronavirus threat is developing. A new strain, called “Cluster 5”.

 

Denmark is now considered by Ireland to be an at risk country after a new strain of the coronavirus was found in Danish mink farms.

 

Anyone travelling from Denmark to Ireland is being told, mid-flight and on entry to Ireland, to self-quarantine for two weeks. Ireland’s minister for transport, Eamonn Ryan, has stated that there will be no exemptions to this rule. Dr Gabriel Scally, the president of the epidemiology and public health section of Britain's Royal Society of Medicine, is calling for a managed isolation system to be introduced in the UK and Ireland as he believes the current encouraged self-isolation system is not effective for controlling the spread of the virus. He also believes that all travel to or from Denmark should be restricted to prevent the spread of this new strain.

 

Covid-19 tests are being carried out on workers on Irish mink farms as well as their households to assess if this issue has already appeared in Ireland. Of the three mink farms in Ireland none have imported any mink this year.

 

Any Covid-19 tests suspected of containing this strain of the virus are being sent to the National Virus Reference Laboratory for genome sequencing. There have not been any conclusive discoveries about this new strain of the Coronavirus however initial testing suggests that it has an increased resistance to antibodies, which could be very bad news for the incoming vaccines.

Dr Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory said that in order for this new strain to have a large impact on the planned vaccination programmes it would have to become the primary global strain, which is unlikely. He also said that as this is a mink-adapted strain, we should expect to see it mutate as it transfers to humans, but that at the moment it does not seem to be any more transmissible, virulent or severe.

 

The mink were infected through exposure to infected humans. As a result of the crowded conditions in mink farms, the virus can spread rapidly, and these mink can act as a reservoir for the virus and transfer it back to humans. In addition, as the virus transmits from species to species, it mutates to a much greater extent than when it transfers through the same species. The possible implication of this is that we could be faced with a strain of the virus against which our vaccines are not effective. The Cluster 5 variation is already showing to be more resistant to antibodies.

Of Denmark’s 1,080 mink farms, this strain of the coronavirus has been discovered on 207 of them, with 214 associated confirmed cases in humans. 12 of these cases included the new strain. Denmark is only one of six countries that have reported Covid-19 cases on Mink farms. The others are The United States, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden. In response to the outbreak, Denmark ordered the execution of 15 - 17 million mink in the country, saying they would pay farmers €2.68 per mink killed if they slaughtered their entire herd within 10 days. This would cost the Danish government €677 million. The mass execution may however not take place due to legal and political controversy. It is now pending legal approval. The Danish government is also planning to place a ban on mink farming until December 2021 despite fur and mink skins being one of Denmark’s most important agricultural exports, with an annual revenue of €1.1 billion.


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