Scientists on guard over 'mutant' mink coronavirus
In this file photo taken on October 08, 2020 employees from the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration and the Danish Emergency Management Agency wearing PPE arrive to start killing minks in Gjol, Denmark, as around 100.000 minks are to be put down at various farms in Denmark due to contamination with the Covid-19 coronavirus. Denmark will cull the entire 15 million mink farmed on its territory because of a mutation of coronavirus Covid-19 already transmitted to 12 people, which threatens the effectiveness of a future vaccine for humans, as Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced on November 4, 2020.
AFP/Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

Scientists on guard over 'mutant' mink coronavirus

Amélie Bottollier-Depois (Agence France-Presse) - November 8, 2020 - 11:07am

PARIS, France — Coronavirus transmission from minks to humans does not necessarily mean the disease will become more dangerous, but scientists are on their guard in the wake of an astounding announcement from Denmark.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said Wednesday that the country will kill more than 15 million minks and that a variant of the SARS-Cov-2 virus that had been transmitted from the animals to 12 people could impact a vaccine's effectiveness.

Global media reacted with shock, especially given the high level of fear already caused by the Covid-19 epidemic that has claimed more than 1.2 million lives in less than a year.

Specialists are not convinced however that the danger is much greater and are waiting for more evidence.

"I really wish that the trend of science by press release would stop," commented Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University in New York.

"There's no reason why the genomic data couldn't be shared, which would allow the scientific community to evaluate these claims," she added on Twitter.

Viruses such as the one that emerged in China late last year mutate constantly and new variants are not necessarily worse than the previous ones.

So far, no study has shown newer SARS-Cov-2 variants to be more contagious or dangerous than their predecessors.

The contamination of minks is not new either, with breeders in several countries, including the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United States reporting cases.

A few cases of humans being infected by minks have also been reported.

Denmark has been specific in describing how the different strain of the virus jumped from mink to man.

"According to the information from Danish authorities, this virus is neither more pathogenic, nor more virulent," specialist Gilles Salvat at the French health agency Anses told AFP.

There is concern however that a variant "emerges like a second virus and dominates the population," he noted.

"Coming up with a vaccine for one strain is already complicated, and if we have to do it for two, four or six strains it is even more complicated," the specialist noted.

He considered the decision to cull Danish mink to be a "precaution".

'Justifiable from health perspective'

Francois Balloux, who teaches at University College London, agreed, telling AFP: "This measure is entirely justifiable from a health perspective to eliminate the transmission source of a serious virus."

He nonetheless also felt that "evoking the risk that mink could generate a second pandemic seems excessive and counter-productive in the current fearful climate."

Balloux noted that similar mutations exist within the population already and have not spread.

"We know this virus with the same mutations emerged on mink farms, was transmitted to humans and did not spread widely," the professor said.

All the same, it was not "completely impossible" that the new strain "could spread and render vaccines less effective," he acknowledged.

Meanwhile, "the true implication of the changes in the spike protein have not yet been evaluated by the international scientific community and are thus unclear," remarked James Wood, head of veterinary medicine at the University of Cambridge. 

"It is too early to say that the change will cause either vaccines or immunity to fail," he told the Science Media Centre.

Cases have also been noted of contamination by the Covid-19 virus from cats, dogs and even lions and tigers at the New York zoo.

But at this point, "the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be low," according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Dogs and cats are dead-ends from an epidemiologist's point of view, Salvat explained, because "they can provisionally host the virus, but cannot multiply it enough to be contagious." 

French authorities have nonetheless urged Covid patients to "avoid all contact" with their pets, especially ferrets, which belong to the same family as minks.

Virologist Rasmussen expressed concern about the chances of the coronavirus being spread by wild cats.

"Cats are susceptible to infection and there are millions of feral cats in the US (and millions more globally). If cats become an established reservoir, we may be stuck with SARS-CoV-2 for years to come," she warned. 

As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: June 22, 2021 - 10:48am

Follow this page for updates on a mysterious pneumonia outbreak that has struck dozens of people in China.

June 22, 2021 - 10:48am

The health ministry says Colombia's death toll from COVID-19 passed the 100,000 mark with a new 24-hour record of almost 650 deaths,.

After three weeks of demonstrations that have brought thousands of people into the streets to protest the government of conservative President Ivan Duque, the South American country of 50 million is suffering its worst moment since the pandemic began. 

It has now recorded 100,582 dead, including 648 in the past 24 hours, the ministry says. — AFP

June 22, 2021 - 7:56am

Facemasks will no longer be compulsory outdoors in  Italy, one of the countries in Europe worst hit by the coronavirus, from June 28, the health ministry said Monday.

The lifting of the mask requirement would come into effect in regions labelled "white" under Italy's classification system for how rapidly the virus is spreading, Health Minister Roberto Speranza wrote on Facebook.

This includes all Italian regions except the tiny Aosta Valley in the far northwest. — AFP

June 20, 2021 - 9:09am

Brazil on Saturday crossed the grim threshold of 500,000 coronavirus deaths, trailing only the United States in lives lost to Covid-19.

"500,000 lives lost due to the pandemic that affects our Brazil and the world," Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga tweeted.

The latest update from his ministry said the toll is now 500,800, with 2,301 deaths in the past 24 hours. Experts say government Covid figures underestimate the real toll from the health crisis. —  AFP

June 19, 2021 - 2:06pm

The Netherlands announces further easing of a raft of measures to combat coronavirus, including an end to mask-wearing in most places.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte says the country was "taking a big step" towards a life without restrictions, from June 26.

"Almost everything is possible at a distance of 1.5 metres," he adds. — AFP

June 18, 2021 - 2:41pm

Lights, camera, real live audiences — Milan fashion welcomes back actual people to its shows Friday, a sign the industry is ready to start turning the page on virtual formats adopted during the pandemic.

The numbers are still modest, with only Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Etro inviting an audience to their men's Spring/Summer 2022 collections.

"This is the dress rehearsal of the return to normalcy," Federica Trotta Mureau, editor of the Italian fashion magazine Mia Le Journal, told AFP. 

The shows represent baby steps but the effect of the live events, instead of the video presentations or short films relied on since early last year when coronavirus cut short the twice-yearly shows in Italy's business capital, would still be appreciated, Mureau said. — AFP

  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with