In the wake of three and a half million dead from Covid, Neiman Marcus is the only major American retailer willing to gamble with public health by continuing to sell fur.
Fur farms have always been pits of disease, but in the age of global pandemics, they have become Petri dishes of viral evolution.
Minks are more susceptible than humans to Covid-19,1 which has infected over 400 fur farms in a dozen countries.2 In the Netherlands, an estimated six times as many minks as humans contracted Covid in 2020.3 At the majority of infected Danish farms, 100% of minks tested – both alive and dead – were positive for the virus.4 And infection growth rate statistics among minks are staggering: 12.5% to 96% in only four days on one farm,5 and 6% to 97% in eight days on another.6
The phenomenon of human-to-mink infection is known as “spillover.” But the mink is also the only species known to have passed the virus back to humans, opening the potential for nightmarish public health consequences.7
Seven countries have reported mink-mutated strains of Covid in humans. At least three of these countries do not even farm minks – meaning the virus spread from human to mink, back to human in mutated form, and then across international borders into global populations.8
In the Netherlands, one study found that 68% of mink farm workers tested positive for Covid or its antibodies.9 This is seventeen times the rate for frontline healthcare workers.10 Every single active human infection was from a mink-mutated strain. And most of the farms had their own distinct strains, because the virus had passed between humans and minks many times, mutating along the way.11
In Denmark, testing has revealed that a full 60% of human Covid cases in the north of the country in October, 2021, were mink-mutated strains.12 This was in spite of the fact that “biosecurity in Denmark was really high,” according to Mark Oaten of the International Fur Federation.13
In other countries, biosecurity is nonexistent. When Covid was found on mink farms in Wisconsin, the US’s leading mink producer, it was revealed that animal health officials were not even aware of the locations of all of the state’s mink farms, which are neither regulated nor licensed.14 It is thus unsurprising that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in April, 2021, that a mink-mutated Covid strain had been found in an individual having no contact with mink farms or mink farm workers.15
The viral mutations that occur in infected minks can create new variations of Covid that are more deadly, contagious, or resistant to treatment and vaccination.16
João Rodrigues, a computational biologist at Stanford University, explains, “Once you introduce a different species that [the virus] can very easily jump to and spread in, as it has in minks, you’re giving it a different environment to adapt to, which triggers a different sort of evolutionary route. The danger in having multiple animal hosts is you’re adding more players to the evolution games.”17
This is not merely theoretical. In November, Denmark – the world’s leading mink producer – made the explosive announcement that a dangerous new strain of Covid, known as “C5,” had mutated in minks on fur farms and jumped into the human population. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen warned that the C5 variant, known as an “antibody escape” mutation, could have disastrous consequences: “The mutated virus in mink may pose a risk to the effectiveness of a future vaccine.”18
According to Allan Randrup Thomsen, a virologist at the University of Copenhagen, “The variant can develop further, so that it becomes completely resistant, and then a vaccine does not matter.”19 Kåre Mølbak, director of infectious diseases at Denmark’s State Serum Institute, was blunt: “The worst-case scenario is that we would start off a new pandemic.”20
Tage Pederson, Chair of the Danish Fur Breeder’s Association, conceded that “we must not be the cause of a new pandemic,”21 recommending that fur farmers comply with a government mandate to cull every mink in the country.22 And Kopenhagen Fur, the world’s largest fur auction house, announced it would be closing its doors in three years or less.23
The C5 mutation evolved within five months of Covid’s first detection on Danish mink farms, and the country is still cleaning up the mess. After a cull of 17 million minks, bloated corpses began to surface from the burial sites, and the Danish Environmental Protection Agency reported possible groundwater contamination.24 As a result, in May, 2021, Danish authorities began to exhume and incinerate 29 million pounds of decomposing minks, and pump and sanitize water from underneath the graves, at a cost of $25 million.25
Denmark regarded its situation as so dangerous that mink burial sites were placed under 24-hour guard.26 In the Netherlands, all roads within 400 meters of infected mink farms were closed.27 And the science has borne out their caution. In April, 2021, German researchers confirmed that a single mink “spike protein” mutation reduced the ability of the human immune system to control the virus. This effect was observed in every blood serum sample from previously infected humans. And one of two therapeutic antibodies normally capable of blocking Covid infection failed against the mink variant.28
Nevertheless, João Rodrigues believes we are lucky that the mutations coming out of mink farms have not been more destructive.29 Spike protein mutations like those found in minks are also responsible for the extremely contagious and deadly strains that have developed in the United Kingdom and South Africa.30
“A Permanent Pandemic Threat”
The spread and mutation of Covid on fur farms is dangerous, but can possibly be contained through measures like quarantining and culling. A greater threat is transmission from farmed minks into the wild, where the virus could survive and evolve long into the future – “a non-human reservoir from where the viruses could be reintroduced once circulation of SARS-CoV-2 in humans is suppressed or even stopped.”31
In January, 2021, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health, and the World Health Organization released a global risk assessment classifying the spread of the virus from fur-farming systems to wildlife populations in Europe and the Americas as “very likely,” with the associated risks being “moderate” to “high.”32
There is not a single disease that humans have successfully eradicated from nature once it has taken hold of wild animal populations.33 Once Covid is in the wild, “it will become extremely difficult to control its further spread to animals and then back to humans,” says Joanne Santini, a microbiologist at University College London.34
According to Marion Koopmans, head of viroscience at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University, “Sars-CoV-2 could potentially continue to circulate in large-scale farms or be introduced to escaped and wild mustelids or other wildlife” and “continue to evolve in their animal hosts, constituting a permanent pandemic threat to humans and animals.”35 Sophie Gryseels, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Antwerp, states that if the virus spreads in wild animals, “Then there is no hope for eradication.”36
Even a researcher funded by the fur industry, veterinary pathologist Anne Sofie Hammer, concluded in a study published in the February, 2021, issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, that “mink farms could represent a serious, unrecognized animal reservoir for SARS-CoV-2.”37
Minks regularly escape from fur farms and become feral. Jeff Bowman, wildlife disease biologist at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, found that near Ontario mink ranches, 64% of the minks trapped were either escapees or captive-wild hybrids, demonstrating “potential pathways for spread [of disease] from farms to other wildlife.”38 And in one region of Denmark, 79% of free-ranging mink were found to be farm escapees.39
Frighteningly, the USDA has already discovered Covid in a wild mink near a Utah fur farm,40 two presumed escapee minks near an Oregon farm,41 and eleven presumed escapee minks near another Utah farm.42 Infected escapee minks have also been found in the Netherlands,43 and Sten Mortensen, veterinary research manager at the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, admits the risk that approximately 5% of the thousands of mink that escaped from Danish farms in 2020 were infected.44
Aside from contact with escaped mink, Covid could be transmitted to wildlife via fecal wastewater, particulate matter, and other contaminants found around fur farms. One Netherlands study of infected mink farms found Covid in one third of air samples and 82% of settled dust samples on the farm. Two separate spots were measured ten meters from the farm’s wall, and Covid was detected in both.45 Dogs and cats from infected farms also often test positive for the virus.46 And studies show that foxes and raccoon dogs, the second and third most prevalent species on fur farms (often housed near mink), are also highly susceptible to Covid, and could be intermediate carriers and future reservoir species for the virus.47
Says Linfa Wang, director of the Program in Emerging Infectious Diseases at Duke-NUS Medical School: “The virus taught us a lesson with mink. It said, ‘You guys can never catch me.’”48
Risks and Benefits
Fur has long been cruel and unnecessary. It is now a grave danger to human health.
Scott Weese, chief of veterinary infection control at the University of Guelph, reminds us, “We have to assess the risks and benefits and decide whether the benefits of mink breeding are worth broader risks to society,” arguing that there is a “limited case for mink farming having social value.”49 Leaders around the world agree, and they are taking action.
Prior to Denmark’s cull, twenty countries had already ended fur farming, or farming of particular species, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan.50 Two have since banned fur farming, while two more have suspended it.51 At least five others are considering bans, including Poland, now the world’s second-ranking fur producer.52 And lawmakers in six US states have introduced legislation to ban the production or sale of fur.53
Even Vogue condemns “fashion’s role in triggering coronavirus outbreaks,” in an article entitled “Here’s Why Fashion Needs to Finally Say Goodbye to Fur.”54
With science and culture united against it, Neiman Marcus has run out of excuses.
1 “Predicting the zoonotic capacity of mammal species for SARS-CoV-2.” bioRxiv.
2 “HSVMA Statement on Mink and COVID-19 Vaccines.” Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.
3 “SARS-CoV-2 and the human-animal interface: outbreaks on mink farms.” The Lancet.
4 “SARS-CoV-2 in Danish Mink Farms: Course of the Epidemic and a Descriptive Analysis of the Outbreaks in 2020.” Animals.
6 “The search for animals harbouring coronavirus — and why it matters.” Nature.
7 “How Mink, Like Humans, Were Slammed by the Coronavirus.” New York Times.
8 “Covid-19 mink variants discovered in humans in seven countries.” The Guardian.
9 “Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 on mink farms between humans and mink and back to humans.” Science.
10 “Risk of COVID-19 among front-line health-care workers and the general community: a prospective cohort study.” The Lancet.
11 “Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 on mink farms between humans and mink and back to humans.” Science.
12 “SARS-CoV-2 mink-associated variant strain – Denmark.” World Health Organization.
13 “How Mink, Like Humans, Were Slammed by the Coronavirus.” New York Times.
14 “Wisconsin’s No. 1 mink farming industry now seen as a COVID-19 risk.” Wisconsin Watch.
15 “CDC: Michigan taxidermist may have caught COVID-19 from infected mink.” Detroit Free Press.
16 “The search for animals harbouring coronavirus — and why it matters.” Nature.
17 “What’s the deal with mink Covid?” Public Broadcasting Service.
18 “Danish Covid-19 mink variant could spark new pandemic, scientists warn.” The Guardian.
21 “Denmark tightens lockdown in north, mink cull devastates industry.” Reuters.
22 “Mink cull puts Denmark’s government in legal pinch.” Reuters.
23 “World’s Biggest Fur Auction House Plans to Liquidate Assets.” Bloomberg.
24 “Mass mink graves in Denmark may have soiled groundwater – report.” Reuters.
25 “Denmark Begins Exhuming Millions of Mink Killed to Contain Covid.” Forbes.
26 “Mass mink graves in Denmark may have soiled groundwater – report.” Reuters.
27 “Mink found infected with Covid-19 at two Dutch fur farms; Areas now closed to public.” NL Times.
28 “SARS-CoV-2 variants from minks evade inhibition by antibodies.” Science Daily.
29 “What’s the deal with mink Covid?” Public Broadcasting Service.
30 “SARS-CoV-2 spike protein gene variants with N501T and G142D mutation dominated infections in minks in the US.” medRxiv.
31 “SARS-CoV-2 and the human-animal interface: outbreaks on mink farms.” The Lancet.
32 “SARS-CoV-2 in animals used for fur farming: GLEWS+ risk assessment, 20 January 2021.” World Health Organization.
33 “What’s the deal with mink Covid?” Public Broadcasting Service.
34 “Escaped infected Danish mink could spread Covid in wild.” The Guardian.
36 “The search for animals harbouring coronavirus — and why it matters.” Nature.
37 “SARS-CoV-2 Transmission between Mink (Neovison vison) and Humans, Denmark.” Emerging Infectious Diseases.
38 “Wisconsin’s No. 1 mink farming industry now seen as a COVID-19 risk.” Wisconsin Watch.
39 “SARS-CoV-2 in animals used for fur farming: GLEWS+ risk assessment, 20 January 2021.” World Health Organization.
40 “A wild mink in Utah is the first wild animal anywhere to test positive for COVID-19, researchers say.” The Salt Lake Tribune.
41 “3 mink caught outside quarantined farm; 2 test SARS-CoV-2 positive.” KOIN.
42 “SARS-CoV-2 Exposure in Escaped Mink, Utah, USA.” Emerging Infectious Diseases.
43 “The search for animals harbouring coronavirus — and why it matters.” Nature.
44 “Escaped infected Danish mink could spread Covid in wild.” The Guardian.
45 “Occupational and environmental exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in and around infected mink farms.” medRxiv.
46 “SARS-CoV-2 in Danish Mink Farms: Course of the Epidemic and a Descriptive Analysis of the Outbreaks in 2020.” Animals.
47 “Susceptibility of Raccoon Dogs for Experimental SARS-CoV-2 Infection.” Emerging Infectious Diseases.; “It’s not just mink: Foxes and raccoon dogs on fur farms ‘may infect humans with coronaviruses’, scientists warn.” The Independent.
48 “The search for animals harbouring coronavirus — and why it matters.” Nature.
49 “‘Spillover risk’ of COVID-19 from minks to humans: Inside the clash between doctors and the B.C. government over outbreaks on farms.” The Toronto Star.
50 “Fur Farming Bans.” Fur Free Alliance.
51 “Mink farms in Ireland will be shut down ‘by the end of the year.'” Respect for Animals.; “Estonia bans fur farms.” Eesti Rahvusringhääling.
52 “Fur Farming Bans.” Fur Free Alliance.
53 “Several states introduce bills banning fur, voicing concerns over cruelty, pandemic risk.” Humane Society of the United States.
54 “Mink Farming and COVID-19: Here’s Why Fashion Needs to Finally Say Goodbye to Fur.” Vogue.