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Coronavirus detected at Utah mink farms

A mink walks in front a farm in Spain.
A mink walks in front a farm in Spain.
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — At least five mink at two Utah mink farms have tested positive with SARS-CoV-2, the animal virus linked to COVID-19 in humans.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Service Laboratory confirmed the findings earlier this week, after local labs became aware of a large number of deaths in the mink population at the two farms.

Mink are already known to be susceptible to the virus and tests done in Utah, Washington and Iowa, where the national lab is located, have proven infection is rampant among the small animals.

More mink are believed to be infected, as two to three mink are dying every day in Utah, Utah Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Bradie Jill Jones said. She did not identify the affected farms and said the infected animals will be composted on-site to keep the outbreak contained.

It is the first detection of the novel coronavirus in the species in the U.S., though the virus has been found in other animals, including four cats and two dogs in Utah, as well as in other states, according to the national laboratory. At least one tiger and one lion at a zoo in New York were also found to have SARS-CoV-2 in early April.

“At this time, there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus that causes COVID-19,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The USDA reports, “A small number of animals worldwide, have been reported to be infected with SARS-CoV-2, mostly after close contact with people with COVID-19.”

The affected mink in Utah have been quarantined to stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

“My office is dedicated to containing SARS-CoV-2 by implementing stringent biosecurity measures where needed,” said Utah State Veterinarian Dr. Dean Taylor, who added that early detection of the virus in the species will “prove beneficial in the long run.”

COVID-19 was also confirmed in staff members at the farms, though the Utah Department of Agriculture believes there is no evidence that the mink played a role in transmitting the virus to humans.

Utah is the second-largest producer of mink pelts among more than 200 farms in the U.S., according to the USDA, which reported the state produced 556,710 pelts in 2019.

Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, has called for a ban on fur farm trade, as she believes animal health and human health are intertwined. Farms, she said, must be dealt with to avoid future outbreaks.

“There is no question that the fur industry is in rapid decline,” she said in a Monday blog post. “The pandemic adds one more obvious reason for hastening its demise, in the United States and around the world.”

There is concern that infection among Utah mink could spread quickly across farms, as it did in Europe. Early investigations there pointed to human-to-animal transmission.

“Mink confined on fur farms are wild animals. It has now been confirmed that the COVID-19 virus has the potential to infect wildlife in North America,” said Nick Atwood, an animal rights activist in Minneapolis who has been following the fur farming industry for years. He said the government should institute reporting requirements for mink farmers.

“People working with mink should take extra precautions against virus transmissions,” he said.

Other species of animals in the U.S. have tested positive with the virus, but these are the first confirmed mink cases in the country. SARS-CoV-2 was detected in mink in the Netherlands in June, and later in Spain and Denmark. Tens of thousands of mink have been destroyed out of a precaution that they might spread the illness.