PORTLAND, Ore.— The Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter today urging the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Oregon Health Authority to investigate the threat of COVID-19 outbreaks and viral mutations at the state’s mink-fur farming operations.
The request comes after news that Denmark, the world’s largest mink producer, will kill more than 15 million of the animals due to fears that a COVID-19 mutation spreading from mink to humans could jeopardize the effectiveness of vaccines being developed.
At least 12 people in Denmark are confirmed to have been infected with a mutated version of COVID-19 linked to these mink-production facilities.
While there have been no confirmed cases of mutated COVID-19 in the United States, COVID-19 has hit U.S. mink-production facilities as well. Since August the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced confirmed cases of COVID-19 in mink at nine Utah mink farms, leading to an estimated 10,000 mink deaths. At least 3,400 mink in Wisconsin have died as of this month after contracting COVID-19.
Oregon is home to 11 registered factory farms that produce fur-bearing animals including mink, containing about 430,000 animals, and an unknown number of smaller mink-rearing operations.
“We urge Oregon officials to make sure mink farms aren’t sources of COVID-19 outbreaks and dangerous viral mutations,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center. “The state has a duty to step in and make sure this highly secretive industry is not putting Oregonians at even greater risk from the coronavirus.”
In addition to the 12 people already infected with the mutated strain of the virus, about half of the 783 human COVID-19 cases in northern Denmark are “related” to mink, according to Denmark’s health minister.
Similar to factory farms that raise animals for food, mink-farming operations have long been known for the risk they pose to the environment, biodiversity and public health. Factory farms and the international wildlife trade are leading breeding grounds for novel and dangerous pathogens.
“In the middle of this pandemic, we need state inspectors to carefully assess what’s happening in mink-rearing facilities and make sure they aren’t posing new threats to public health,” said Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the Center. “And more broadly we need much more regulation of fur farms to ensure that they aren’t the source of the next pandemic.”
The Center also called on the agencies to ensure that if COVID-19 cases are discovered at mink-breeding facilities, the public be informed.
Further, the carcasses of infected animals must be disposed of in a way that will not pollute the surrounding environment, particularly surface and groundwaters. The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently recommends disposal methods that include unlined burial and on-site incineration, practices known to pose additional risks to public health and the environment.
In July the Center and partners petitioned the agency to ban unlined burial and on-site incineration for disposing of the millions of industrially raised farm animals killed following COVID-induced slaughter slowdowns.