ROME – There are few things that make scientists more nervous during an uncontrolled pandemic than the cross-species contagion from a mutated strain of a deadly virus. This is why Denmark – the world’s largest supplier of fur – has taken the unprecedented decision to slaughter its entire mink population, or nearly 17 million animals.
The drastic step was taken after 12 incidents of a mutated strain of COVID-19 jumping from dense furry animals to humans. These people then spread it to nearly 400 others through human-to-human contagion. The National Serum Institute of Denmark reported that 214 of them had been recorded with “mink-related versions” of COVID-19.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has warned that health experts say the mutated virus could weaken the human body’s ability to form antibodies, which would compromise vaccines currently in development. “We have a great responsibility towards our own people, but with the mutation that has now been found, we have an even greater responsibility for the rest of the world too,” Frederiksen said at a press conference on Wednesday when she announced the mass slaughter. , stressing the fear that the mutated virus “could pose a risk to the effectiveness of a future vaccine”.
Kare Molbak, who heads the Danish State Serum Institute, warned of a “worst-case scenario” if the mutated strain creates “a new pandemic, starting again from Denmark”.
This is so serious for the Danish government that strict new lockdown measures have been put in place around mink farms where slaughter is taking place, although it is not clear if this is entirely because of the mink jump. -human or because of the exponential jump. jump in the cases among those who work on farms.
The move angered fur producers who say mink is in fact a scapegoat to appease nervous health officials and conspiracy theorists and that the government is using the pandemic to destroy the industry. Not all scientists agree that the slaughter – which will be devastating to the global fur trade and cost Danish fur farmers $ 785 million – is necessary.
François Balloux, professor of computer systems biology and director of the Institute of Genetics at the University of College London, told The Daily Beast that there are already thousands of COVID-19 mutations around the world and the mutation in mink, while of some concern, is not the real threat to vaccine effectiveness. “The fact that a few have been seen in mink will not change the strains circulating in humans,” he said. “If these strains were beneficial for the virus to infect its human host, they would already be at high frequency.”
He fears that while there are threads of truth in the story of the mink mutation, “it’s a bit disturbing” to warn that the mink will cause a new pandemic and “silly” to push the theory according to. which the mutation of the mink will create a “vaccine leak” Situation which will render the vaccines in development ineffective.
He argues that all future vaccine-escaping mutations – which cause the now infamous coronavirus spike protein (those pillars on virus molecules) to resist a vaccine’s neutralizing antibodies – are already here and are “they won’t be. certainly not fueled by mutations of mink. ”
“We have to face it, there will probably be mutations that will reduce the efficiency,” he says. “We should be worried about vaccine mutations at some point, but visions won’t be the problem.”
Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington, agrees that Denmark is overreacting. He told medical website Stat News that while interspecies contagion “is worth watching out for,” it’s not the nightmarish scenario some of the hype has feared. “It hits all the scary buttons,” he said, but that probably doesn’t mean a vaccine is at risk.
Columbia University virologist Dr Angela Rasmussen agrees. She tweeted a word of warning after the mink story went viral. “So you may have heard concerns about the mink variant of # SARSCoV2 which was discovered in Denmark and which led to the decision to cull all farmed mink in the country,” she said. written on Twitter. “It shouldn’t be a cause for panic.”
As many others have also argued, the Danish government may just want to get rid of mink farms and this mutation gives them a chance to do so. Balloux says every possible mutation has probably happened in someone several times already. “There are billions and billions and billions of viruses, all possible mutations are emerging all the time, and the fact that you have one emerging in mink, I would say ‘who cares’,” adding that “There are good reasons to shut down mink farms, but the move is not the right argument.”
Joanna Swabe of Humane Society International calls culling a step in the right direction. “Although not a ban on fur farming, this decision marks the end of the suffering for millions of animals confined in small wire cages on Danish fur farms only for the purpose of some trivial fur fashion that no one needs, ”she said in a statement Thursday.
The Danish government did not immediately respond to a request for comment and Denmark is not the first country to slaughter the animals due to the abundance of caution over nervous health officials. In the Netherlands and Spain, thousands of mink have been slaughtered after epidemics among workers in fur processing plants.
Still, Balloux fears that creating unnecessary panic over the mutation of the mink is more dangerous than the mutation itself. “You can always come up with the worst case scenario,” he says. “But creating that level of panic and fear in the face of outsized observation is just not what we need right now.”
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