To what extent is it acceptable for a private business to put public health at risk? What level of risk can an individual or a private business impose on others from a public health perspective?

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to grapple with such questions, balancing the need to protect public health while avoiding interference with personal activities and business. Important considerations have ranged from setting limits on store occupancy and social gatherings to mandating masks on planes and buses, all the way to fur farming — especially mink farming.

Mink are naturally wild animals, native to Canada. Like cats, they are excellent hunters and purr when content. They are also very susceptible to COVID-19 and influenza — respiratory viruses with pandemic potential.

Outbreaks of COVID-19 on large private mink farms in British Columbia (which continued despite implementation of additional biosecurity measures and the prioritization of COVID-19 vaccines for employees) have brought international attention.

A key concern is that SARS-CoV-2 can spread like wildfire among the thousands of minks crowded next to each other on fur farms. With increased transmission, SARS-CoV-2 can develop new and potentially dangerous mutations, which can then be transmitted back to people — something that has already happened in Europe.

Genomic studies of mink on fur farms in B.C. documented the emergence of a critical mutation (Y453F) associated with partial resistance to antibody-mediated immunity. Additional studies in Europe have shown that COVID-19 can persist for months on a fur farm and even after infection and developing antibodies, mink can be re-infected.

In November, after documentation that SARS-CoV-2 virus was circulating for more than two months among 25,000 animals on a mink farm in the Fraser Valley, and an order by the provincial health officer affirming "mink farming is a health hazard as it is an activity which endangers or is likely to endanger public health," the province announced it wants to phase out mink fur farms.

As well as infectious diseases specialists, First Nations leaders and animal welfare groups have been vocal in their opposition to fur farming and have called for an end to this practice. Public opinion polls have also documented that the vast majority of Canadian residents oppose the practice of fur farming and feel that standard practices, like intensive confinement and using anal electrocution to kill foxes, are no longer acceptable.

This is a time-sensitive matter

The risks associated with continuing industrial mink farming outweigh the limited societal benefits. Photo by Dzivnieku briviba / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This past month, there were still more than 2,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 20 deaths per day across Canada. The emergence of the Omicron variant has renewed concerns. Deer have been identified as susceptible to COVID-19. The ongoing presence of large mink fur farms risks development of animal reservoirs and novel variants that threaten to undermine our COVID-19 vaccination program and public health efforts.

Opinion: The risks associated with continuing industrial mink farming outweigh the limited societal benefits, write Jan Hajek @ahoysvet, Alastair McAlpine @AlastairMcA30 and Victor Leung @VicLeungIDdoc. #COVID19

Vaccinating mink may help reduce the risks and slow the emergence of novel SARS-CoV-2 variants. However, publicly funded vaccination programs for minks, as initiated in Nova Scotia, will not eliminate these risks and will require ongoing enforcement and surveillance.

According to standard practices, approximately 80 per cent of minks are expected to be killed in November and December, and, if breeding is permitted in 2022, the remaining minks will be subject to breeding in the following months; each female giving birth to an average of five babies, dramatically increasing the number of mink in Canada.

The chances that a novel variant will emerge on a mink farm in Canada and significantly alter the course of the pandemic, or establish a permanent reservoir in other animals, are low, but the consequences if this happened could be catastrophic.

The risks associated with continuing industrial mink farming outweigh the limited societal benefits. Investing more public resources and providing more financial support to make up for declining fur farming revenues is no longer justifiable.

The ban on mink fur farms and transition support for fur farm operators in B.C. were positive steps. But COVID-19 does not respect borders and we need to have a positive and proactive plan to support the remaining mink-breeding operations in Canada to close safely and permanently. Mink fur farming needs to stop.

Dr. Jan Hajek, Dr. Alastair McAlpine and Dr. Victor Leung are infectious diseases specialists.

Keep reading