After decades of denouncing the frivolous gold “watch, jewelry and accessories” industry that’s responsible for the destruction of forests and the degradation of the lives of indigenous peoples, now aggravated by the propagation of Covid-19 by gold miners, I was stunned on December 21st, 2020 to read “Are mink farms the source of Covid in Europe ?” in an article by Yves Sciama and Yann Faure for the French online ecology review Reporterre. Clearly, the luxury industry isn’t only destroying people and nature « somewhere else » any longer; it is apparently now destroying people and nature everywhere!?
“EXCLUSIVE – Are mink farms the source of Covid in Europe?
Genetic analyses reveal that the two lines of Sars-CoV-2 that caused the two waves of epidemics that ravaged Europe were born near, if not in the heart of, intensive mink farms. They raise dizzying questions about the history of the pandemic and underline the incomprehensible passivity of health and veterinary authorities.
Scientific evidence, still patchy, is accumulating and confirms that, in the tragedy of the current Covid epidemic, mink is an important, even decisive, issue. Two things are already certain: first, mink farms, and particularly the largest of them, are microbiological cauldrons of extreme danger to health. Second, across all of Europe, with the exception of the Netherlands and to some extent Denmark, veterinary and health authorities have been in denial about this peril, stubbornly downplaying the risks, either out of blindness or to save the fur industry. An industry in decline which represents few jobs and no real social utility … but whose exports represent several hundred million euros per year.
But there may be more. A series of observations point to two mink farms, one located in Italy, in the town of Capralba, and the other in Spain, near Teruel, as possibly being at the origin of viral lines that played a key role in the two waves of Covid which ravaged Europe. If what is still only a suspicion at this point were to be confirmed, it would be a scientific earthquake that would force a complete rewrite of the history of the epidemic. Finally, more and more scientists, like Marion Koopmans, one of the most experienced virologists on the planet, consider it likely that mink is simply ‘the missing link in the Covid-19 pandemic’ and the animal through which the virus is passed to humans.
It was after deaths on Dutch farms in April 2020 that awareness of the importance of mink in the pandemic began. Until then, studies had shown that Covid could infect a variety of animals: cats, dogs, lions, tigers, ferrets, hamsters, etc. A long list on which mink could have occupied a minor place … if there weren’t around 30 million of them in Europe, concentrated on some 2,750 intensive farms devoted to the production of fur. On these intensive mink farms there is phenomenal promiscuity: the tiny wire cages of animals pile up in endless rows, food and animal droppings flowing from one cage to another through the wire mesh.
The initial research of these cases started in the Netherlands, where one of the best virological institutes in the world, the Erasmus Medical Center, is located – a multidisciplinary scientific investigation that was published in November in the prestigious journal Science. The researchers quickly realized the gravity of the situation: mink have a very low mortality rate, and often imperceptible symptoms. 47% of infected mink herds were found to be asymptomatic. In contrast, the disease is everywhere: more than 90% of the animals sampled had been infected with Covid, according to veterinarian Arjan Stegeman, a member of the team.
Equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and experts in their field, the researchers sequenced the virus in humans and mink and realized that if humans can infect mustelids, they can infect humans too. So much so that the rate of contamination of mink workers reached 68%, the researchers’ publication revealed. An extraordinarily high figure!
More seriously, the researchers noted that there is ‘a faster rate of evolution of the virus in mink.’ The rate of mutation increases when a virus changes species, as it ‘tries to adapt’ to the new species. There are reasons for this: the change of species, extreme stress, injuries, overcrowding, genetic proximity due to inbreeding, the constant passage of fluids and food between the cages all imply a much more explosive viral circulation than that which is observed in human populations. Viruses spread and multiply in a microbial blaze that mechanically increases the risk of mutation.
Frightened, the Dutch authorities decided in early November to slaughter all of the mink their farms. Neighboring Denmark, the leading European producer, was affected as early as May. The government tried to limit losses by slaughtering only mink on infected farms from mid-June. It was not until November 5 that the country resolved to undertake widespread culling after learning that a new line of the virus, known as Clade 5, was detected in twelve people, after testing only a small proportion of the population and could theoretically threaten humanity with a worsening pandemic.
The Sars-CoV-2 of Clade 5 indeed presents five mutations, which already shows a significant divergence from the original virus. Above all, when confronted with human antibodies from patients cured of Covid, Clade 5 viruses seem to resist better. This suggests a more serious form of the disease with a lower response to vaccines!
The images of the extermination of the 16 million Danish mink are appalling: the corpses of animals were bulldozed into mass graves, thrown haphazardly by excavators into trenches hundreds of meters in length. The authorities were so alarmed and acted so hastily that the burial was poorly executed with catastrophic results. Fermentation literally dug up the bodies, as was revealed on November 27 as they rose to the surface, and decomposition fluids threatened groundwater.
As of this writing, the Clade 5 appears to have been extinguished by the vigorous Danish reaction. But the role of mink in the Covid epidemic does not end with this dramatic episode. In Spain, have sick minks infected humans? Two other European lines of Sars-CoV-2 have attracted a lot of scientific attention, and deserve to be examined in more detail. These are 20A.EU1 (which appeared at the end of June in Spain), and D614G, which appeared at the end of February in Italy.
Coronavirus lineage 20A.EU1, as documented in a pre-published scientific article by the University of Basel on October 28 and updated on November 27, originated in late June in Spain in the region of Aragon and quickly spread through Europe. It is now the dominant lineage in the UK, Ireland and Spain, and accounts for a significant share of cases in France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark and many more countries. It has indeed been spread from Spain by vacationers returning to their country from holidays abroad.
Spain has 38 mink breeding sites, and one of them made a lot of headlines in June. Located in La Puebla de Valverde – barely 500 inhabitants – about twenty kilometers from Teruel, in Aragon, it is, with 100,000 minks, one of the largest farms in the country. On May 22, seven agricultural workers employed on the farm tested positive for Covid. By then, the Dutch example had already shown that sick farmers easily contaminate the animals and that in return, the mink can infect other humans. The farm was then placed in isolation, causing more concern as the neighboring town is only six kilometers away. In the Netherlands, the health security perimeter, set at eight kilometers, had proved insufficient to prevent further spread. A careful veterinary follow-up was organized: on May 28th, from a small random sample of seven mink, none was sick. On June 8th, out of twenty minks tested, one was positive (5%). On June 22nd, the sample was increased to thirty specimens and there were five positive tests (or 17%). On July 7, a month after the detection of the first case, with a new sample of ninety minks, there were seventy-eight positive (or 86%). The order was finally given to shoot the 92,700 minks and destroy their corpses in an MRS (specific high-risk material) waste plant.
The key question is: Has this cross-culture broth from diseased minks infected humans? Joaquin Olona, the Spanish Minister of Agriculture, dodged the question but recognized that there were ‘two cases that could be linked’ … More directly, Juan José Badiola, director of the Center for Emerging Diseases in Zaragoza, admitted: ‘We are experiencing a case similar to what happened in the Netherlands […] In the case of Puebla de Valverde, in the beginning, there was perhaps no infection (from animals to humans ), but now there are two ‘infected’ (people) and this is already attracting attention.’
Here, the issue takes a strange turn. Because in order to see this ‘species jump’, it was necessary that the viral samples of these Spanish breeders be sequenced. This is the only way to prove the passage from animal to human, as was done a month earlier in the Netherlands: the Dutch workers carried a mutated virus only present in mink and absent in the rest of the human population. But the sequencing was not done in Spain.
Asked by Reporterre, Iñaki Comas, director of the Spanish sequencing consortium of the Institute of Biomedicine of Valencia, indicates that he has never processed any sequence from a mink farm worker and says he does not know whether these sequences exist or not. However, the study from the University of Basel, which obtained Spanish sequences from Iñaki Comas, claims to have found the origin of the 20A.EU1 line in the sequences of seven agricultural workers ‘from the provinces of Aragon and Catalonia.’ A triple geographical, professional and chronological coincidence, which suggests that these seven workers could quite simply be the employees of the La Puebla breeding farm.
In the absence of formal proof, there are in any case solid reasons to believe that this new line, which then strongly contributed to the European ‘second wave’, was the result, like several others observed in Denmark, of mink farming. Its special feature is that it has experienced spectacular developmental success.
Emma Hodcroft, first author of the study from the University of Basel, pointed out to Reporterre ‘that there is no data allowing us to say that this viral line induces a more severe form of the disease’, but explicitly stresses that ‘its rapid expansion may suggest that it is more transmissible, which experimental data corroborate.’ The passage through mink could therefore have generated a virus of increased transmissibility. One thing is certain: on the date of the slaughter (July 17), this rural province of Aragon was where the human coronavirus epidemic was, by far, the highest in the country. Both for the number of positive tests identified and for that of hospital admissions.
That’s not all. Beyond the Danish crisis and the Spanish case, mink farms still face another suspicious situation: that of having given birth to the first European wave, the one that originated in Lombardy (Italy). It should be noted from the outset that the coronavirus struck there where it was not expected. While it all seemed to have started in a megalopolis in China, in Italy it was villagers who were first affected in a rural area located about sixty kilometers from Milan. When the first patient was hospitalized following atypical pneumonia, and he asked the doctor who auscultated him if he could have caught the coronavirus … the doctor replied, according to the Italian press, that ‘The coronavirus does not even know where Codogno is’.
The first referenced case in question is that of Mattia Maestri. Fortunately, Annalisa Malara, the anesthesiologist who made the diagnosis thought of taking a sample from the patient, despite dissuasive protocols for taking samples from any patient not having traveled to China. She sent the sample to Sacco Hospital in Milan on February 20th at 12:30 p.m. from her field hospital in the province of Cremona.
This information is essential, because the D614G variant which spread throughout Europe, particularly in France during what was called the ‘first wave’, completely supplanting the strain originally from Asia, was sequenced for the first time in Italy on February 20th, 2020. There was only one positive test on February 20th, which allows us to deduce that the first D614G mutation sequenced is the one found in Mattia Maestri’s sample. Of course, this was not the first Italian case, since someone had to contaminate him.
A retrospective survey of Italian researchers and doctors, published at the end of March, suggests that the virus had already been circulating, unrecognized, locally for several weeks and that the first cases could have been considered ‘suspect’ from the second half of January, but alas! no ‘patient zero’ was found.
Italy was the first infectious hotspot in Europe, especially in the mink farming region. What is indisputable is that Italy was indeed the first source of infection in Europe and the most affected country in the winter of 2020; Lombardy is the center of the Italian epidemic and the region of the country most affected by the coronavirus; and finally in Lombardy, the three most painfully affected localities are obviously Lodi, Bergamo and Cremona.
Many articles written about a Champion league football match between Atalanta Bergamo and Valencia, played in front of 60,000 fans in Milan on February 19th, speculate that the game may have helped accelerate the spread in the region. But before February 19th, the most affected areas were, in that order; Lodi (132 cases), Bergamo (91 cases), Cremona (59 cases) … And on March 5th, 72% of Italian coronavirus cases came from one of these three municipalities.
If we map this triangle, we see, with the help of figures from the Italian statistical institute (Istat), that this is precisely where the earliest cases of death occurred and the highest levels of excess mortality.
In Offanengo, relative excess mortality in March 2020 compared to March 2019: + 3,900%; in Ravanego, right next door + 1.000%; not far from there, in Capralba, + 1,000%. In the villages immediately around Capralba, in Vailate, + 1,000%, and in Pandino, + 1,500%. The rates are dizzying, even if the absolute number of cases is modest (in Pandino, 48 deaths in March 2020 compared to 3 deaths in March 2019). In the nearest town, Crema, the figure is + 322% (174 deaths in March 2020 versus 41 the previous year).
However, a disturbing fact is that there are less than ten mink farms in Italy… and five are in Lombardy. The situation of these Lombard farms gives credence to their potential role in the outbreak of the epidemic: they are in Offanengo, Crema and Capralba. In particular, that of Capralba, which is by far the most important in Italy, contains 30,000 mink. Its owner is none other than the president of the Association of Italian Breeders. And the list of the first seven Italian deaths recorded (all before February 24th) shows that two deaths occurred about fifteen kilometers from Crema, plus one in Crema itself … and another in the village adjacent to the hamlet where the Capralba farm is located (at a place called Trescore Cremasco, not even two kilometers away). Here is the cradle of the Italian epidemic.
Giovanni Boccu, the owner of the Capralba mink farm, is regarded as a high level producer who prides himself on providing hides that are among the top fifty of the finest quality in the world. In order to obtain quality fur, meticulous selection work is necessary, which means that from one farm to another, from one country to another, precious breeding males are exchanged. Giovanni Boccu exports 72% of his production, half of which goes to the Asian zone. His contacts with China are regular, his reputation known in the Middle Empire. Could it be that a virus introduced from China spread to his farm, spread to nearby farms, their workers, and then spread to the general population?
Theoretically, this is perfectly possible, because in Denmark this type of spread has been documented, although scientists admit to being perplexed about the exact routes of the contamination. ‘This could be explained in various ways,’ veterinarian Arjan Stegeman said at a conference in early December. ‘Of course contamination is possible by human, animal and material exchanges between farms, but also by the frequent cases of minks escaping their cages, the infection of cats or other animals frequenting the farms, even birds or bats, not to mention wastewater… ‘
The D614G variant which has spread throughout Europe could have very possibly come from a Lombard mink farm, although it could also have appeared in a human. In any case, as the prestigious journal Cell points out, by imposing itself so strongly, this variant probably confers an increased contagiousness … As was already the case for the Spanish 20A-EU1 variant.
Thus, the trace of two major European variants, with enhanced transmissibility, is found in the immediate vicinity of large mink farms. However, virologists are aware that in laboratory experiments in which the virus is transmitted from one animal to another in rapid succession, the contagiousness of viruses tend to increase. This has been demonstrated in particular with avian flu in ferrets… These animals are very close to mink, and also belong to the mustelid family (ferrets also develop Covid). However, the molecular ‘gate’ through which Sars-CoV2 enters cells, a protein called the ACE2 receptor, is known to be very close to that of humans in this family. This explains why increased transmissibility in mink has the same effect in Homo sapiens.
The one thing that is certain, is that authorities across Europe have done everything to evade the problem and minimize the risks. Denmark waited months before resolving to slaughter its mink herds, and did not communicate any footage until October, despite the raging pandemic.
In Italy, the LAV, the ‘antivivisection league’ and one of the main animal welfare associations, bombarded the authorities for months with insistent demands for information, then launched a petition and finally filed a complaint. They eventually obtained the information in early November that a farm infected with the coronavirus had been detected in August, without any further details. ‘It was only after the extermination of the Danish minks that it was revealed to us on November 12th that it was the farm in Capralba’, the LAV mission manager, Simone Pavesi, told Reporterre.
At the present time, Italian authorities continue to avoid facing the scope of this evidence and claim that the quantity of the positive sample collected in August is insufficient in order to proceed with a sequencing, which is the only way to know which viral line circulated in the minks.
Finally, there is, and this is the third and perhaps the biggest issue concerning mink, the question of Chinese breeding. With 26 million mink, 13 million foxes and 14 million raccoon dogs, China produces more than half of the world’s furs. Science has established in recent months that these animals can contract and transmit Sars-CoV-2. However, China, known for its opacity, and undoubtedly anxious to protect its fur industry, has so far indicated that it has not carried out any research into the origin of Sars-Cov-2 in these farms. It is also resisting an independent mission from the WHO, the World Health Organization, on the subject.
Ultimately, although suspicion is mounting, the exact role of mink remains to be determined. Simple collateral victim of the Covid pandemic? Active accelerator and propagator? Missing link between the bat and the human?
One thing is already certain: in the era of pandemics, the existence of farms in which millions of animals with respiratory systems similar to ours piled up in appalling sanitary conditions is a time bomb that must be defused. It is an emergency.
Reporterre Supplement: MUTATIONS AND LINES, WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
All viruses suffer from occasional errors in their reproduction process called mutations. A virus is a kind of folded ‘chain’ made up of a sequence of several thousand ‘rings’ called amino acids. A mutation is the replacement of one of these amino acids with another. (Thus D614G is a mutation on the 614th amino acid of the ‘chain’, in which D has been replaced by G.) The vast majority of these mutations do not change the properties of the virus, and several hundred mutations are currently circulating around the world, some emerging recently, others at the very beginning of the pandemic. Researchers are trying to classify these mutated viruses into sets they call lineages, clades, variants, or strains. Thus, a line is made up of viruses carrying one or more identical mutations. And it is fair to think that a line that progresses faster than the others probably has superior transmissibility.”
It’s my translation. Here’s the link to the original article in French:
The SARS-CoV2 has now appeared in minks in seven different countries (besides China): the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Sweden, Spain, and the United States (Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin and Michigan). Workers at farms with infected mink in the U.S. have also tested positive for Covid-19.
Austria, the Czech Republic, and other European countries ban fur farming because of concerns about inhumane treatment. In the wild, minks are semi-aquatic. In captivity on these breeding farms, minks live in small wire cages stacked one on top of another. The stress of confinement in this unnatural habitat can lead to self-mutilation and even cannibalism. They are killed before being skinned for their valuable pelts by electrocution, gas poisoning or manual neck-breaking.
Additionally, according to Science in October 2020: “the climate footprint of producing 1 kg of mink fur is five times as high as the footprint of producing 1 kg of wool.” This wretched abuse of animals and wanton use of natural resources is unethical and unsustainable.
Danish lawmakers have decided to “ban mink farming for one year, until 2022”. Farmers fear they will go out of business? What about the people who have died of Covid-19 and those whose lives have been shattered by the ongoing aftereffects of the illness?
Yes, Reporterre is correct, it is an emergency to recognize that what we are doing to nature and to humanity for the sake of profit and for the futile accumulation of more flashy, ostentatious, “luxury” items is barbarous and unacceptable. It has to stop. Now.
Part 2, the origins of Covid-19 in China, is here: