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Call for coronavirus screening at mink farms

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  • Coronavirus pandemic
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image captionEurope produces millions of mink pelts a year

Mink at all fur farms should be routinely screened for coronavirus, according to a leading scientist.

A mandatory surveillance programme is urgently needed, with Denmark, which is culling all mink, acting as a warning, said Prof Marion Koopmans.

She pointed to a "major concern" that the virus could spread to wildlife via escaped mink.

And there were questions over whether mink played a role in the origins of Sars-CoV-2, she said.

Writing in The Lancet journal, Prof Koopmans, who has been leading investigations into cases in mink in the Netherlands, highlighted the risk of escaped mink transmitting the virus to other wildlife.

Speaking to BBC News, the head of the Erasmus MC Department of Viroscience said mandatory early warning screening for mink was already in place in The Netherlands, which should be made mandatory worldwide.

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image captionMink, like their relatives, ferrets, are susceptible to respiratory viruses

While human cases seen in mink farmers "are not a major public health risk", it is crucial to learn lessons from the pandemic, Prof Koopmans added.

"Animals and animal farms are an important source of food and income for many, but there are risks associated with large scale animal production and the increasing demand does require reflection," she said.

"This is not to point fingers to the animal sector, this is a joint responsibility for public health and citizens. There is no large-scale farming without large scale consumer demand.

"This is part of a much larger sustainability agenda. I really hope that is what we will retain from this pandemic: the need to seriously look at more sustainable production systems for the future. "

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in Solna, Sweden, Europe has an estimated 2,750 mink farms and produces more than 27 million pelts per year.

Denmark is culling an estimated 17 million mink, over fears the virus is mutating.

Infections have also been detected in mink in France, Spain, Sweden, Italy, the US and Greece, as well as the Netherlands, which will now ban fur farming by March 2021.

On Tuesday, the first coronavirus cases at mink farms in Poland were detected in the north of the country, according to the Medical University of Gdansk.

Last week, Ireland said it would cull mink at its three remaining mink farms, citing concerns over the mutated form of the virus detected in mink on a farm in Denmark. Tests found no cases in the mink, but culling was recommended as a precaution.

Mink appear particularly susceptible to Sars-CoV-2, which can spread rapidly in farms.

Sars-CoV-2 has the potential to infect a range of farmed and wild mammals, with opportunities for the virus to mutate, said Prof Christine Kreuder Johnson of the school of veterinary medicine at the University of California.

She told BBC News: "A great deal (of) vigilance and monitoring of animal populations will be needed to understand genetic mutations and implications this could have for human vaccines.

"This is just another indication that we have lots of work to do to keep Covid-19 at bay for the long term."

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