Fur farms packed full of sick, distressed and injured animals are virus reservoirs and should be shut immediately to protect public safety, experts warn.
Denmark is culling 17 million mink in an effort to further prevent the spread of “cluster 5”, a mutated version of the virus which has been detected in 12 people.
There are fears the virus could undermine vaccine development.
Grim footage from Danish television emerged over the weekend showing the reality of their fur trade – one of the biggest producers in the world.
It showed gassed mink being scooped up by a digger into piles ready for burning. So far 1.2million have been slaughtered.
The closure of these farms has been welcomed but campaigners have urged for all farms to be banned for good as the horrific conditions the animals are kept in are breeding grounds for diseases – a “health ticking timebomb”.
The Mirror is campaigning with the Humane Society International-UK to stop the sale of fur products in the UK.
Claire Bass, executive director, said: “Keeping stressed, sick and injured animals crammed together in tiny wire cages has terrible consequences for animal health and welfare, but it’s now abundantly clear that the fur trade also presents a significant and unacceptable risk to public health.
“The cramped and dirty conditions create the perfect conditions for viruses to proliferate, and it appears that the Covid-19 virus is mutating rapidly among mink.
This is a tipping point that governments cannot afford to ignore, it would be grossly irresponsible and short-sighted for the Danish government to cull millions of animals now and then allow farmers to refill the same cages a few months later.
“Fur farming is an animal welfare nightmare, we need governments globally to act fast and shut this sick industry down, both by banning fur farming and banning the sale of fur products.”
PETA Vice President of International Programmes Mimi Bekhechi urged Denmark to “ban these pandemic petri dishes immediately – because no one needs a mink coat, but we do need an effective vaccine and an ethical society”.
More than 100 million animals are killed each year for their fur including mink, fox, raccoon dog, chinchilla and rabbit – three every second.
They typically spend their lives in one-metre-squared battery cages and are only moved twice – for weaning and on the day they die.
Mike Moser, former boss of the British Fur Trade Association, who is backing the Mirror’s campaign, said: “When you walk through the sheds of a typical fur farm, cages are placed right next to one another, food is dropped onto the tops of the cages and left to drip through.
“The cage floors are wire meshes so animal faeces can fall through into a pile and left to fester. Vermin and flies proliferate.
It would be no surprise to me if such unsanitary conditions were a big factor in the rate at which the virus has spread among the mink population.
“But with the emergence of the cluster 5 variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Danish mink farms, it is no longer just a question of animal welfare – the fur industry is now responsible for threats to human health.”
The mutated virus has been detected retrospectively in mink at a farm in the Netherlands, but it did not spread to humans, said Prof Wim van der Poel, a veterinary expert at Wageningen University.
The Netherlands launched a widespread cull of mink after signs, in a small number of cases, that humans had picked up coronavirus from mink.
The USA, Italy, Spain and Sweden have also reported Covid cases in minks, the World Health Organisation has confirmed.
Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergencies expert, said :“There’s always the potential that this can come back to humans.
Mammal species like mink are very good hosts, and the virus can evolve within those species, especially if they are in large numbers packed closely together.”
Every hospital in the UK has now been ordered to isolate suspected “mink virus” patients amid increasing efforts to prevent a mutant strain of Covid-19 from spreading to the UK.
In a letter circulated to health chiefs, co-signed by Prof Steve Powis, the NHS medical director, hospitals have been informed that coronavirus patients who recently travelled to Denmark must be isolated, treated in specialist centres and gene-tested.
The UK has banned entry to all non-resident foreigners arriving from Denmark, while UK citizens must isolate for 14 days. Passenger planes,
ships and lorries carrying freight from Denmark will also not be allowed across the border.
The Government estimates between 300-500 people have arrived in the UK from Denmark in the past 14 days.
Denmark has reported 214 human cases linked to mink farms, of which 12 are thought to be of cluster 5. Four were found in the local community, rather than on farms, suggesting human-to human transmission.
Prof Francois Balloux, the director of UCL’s Genetics Institute said mink are highly susceptible to coronavirus, and since they outnumber humans three to one in Denmark, it was sensible to cull the animals to prevent them fuelling the epidemic.
Fiona Mathews, a professor of environmental biology who chairs the Mammal Society, urged the Government to fund a study into whether the virus might already be spreading in the UK’s wild mink population.
“There’s a chance it might have jumped to cousins of the mink, like otters,” she said.
In September we revealed shocking scenes of cannibalism and self-mutilation at what is believed to be the world’s largest mink fur farm in Goreczki, Poland.
Celebrities including Dame Judy Dench, Ricky Gervais and Alesha Dixon have backed our calls.
Dragons Den judge Deborah Meaden told her 421,000 Twitter followers: “Perhaps when fur farms start threatening people we will stop the cruel trade that sees millions of animals kept in cruel cages for short miserable lives and stripped for fur.”
Heartbreaking footage emerged last night showing some mink are still alive when sent to the incinerator.
Jacob Forman, lawyer at Forman Advokate, representing the transporters said it is deeply upsetting that the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration has so little control over the killing of mink, which has meant drivers have inadvertently transported live animals for incineration.
He said: “It is abominable – it is animal cruelty at the highest level.”
Irish mink farms are now being tested for coronavirus, their Department of Agriculture has confirmed as a precaution.
It is understood no mink have been transported into Ireland in 2020.