The understanding that viruses spread reciprocally from humans to domesticated animals and vice versa is of course not new. Zoonotic diseases such as bird and swine influenzas have caused devastation in many instances, with the most well-known and severe to date the global 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic caused by genes of avian origin. Such instances do not typically end well for the domestic animals involved. As recently as early November, 2020, the government of the United Kingdom dealt with two instances of bird flu, a low-pathogenic H5N2 strain and a highly pathenogenic H5N8, by causing 14,000 to be slaughtered. 

Similar bird influenzas such as the H5N1, discovered in 1996 and prevalent across Asia and Africa, have plagued the poultry industry. More than 240 million birds—including chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese—have either died from that virus or were slaughtered in an effort to stop it from spreading. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, H5N1 has caused over 700 infections in humans worldwide and the mortality rate of 60% is high for humans. 

Transmission of bird influenzas to humans usually occur with direct or close contact with infected birds. The confined and unsanitary conditions in which farmed-animal production takes place, the stress of the situation on the animals that lowers their immunity, and the close contact between these animals and the farm workers creates a perfect environment enabling such animal-to-human transmission. Although rare, the viruses then move on to be passed through human-to-human channels. What concerns health officials is the very serious likelihood of such viruses mutating within the animals, becoming through those mutations more easily transmissible between humans, and then being passed to humans. This potential is exactly what spurred concern when both mink and the humans working on mink farms became ill with COVID-19 this year. 

The first cases of coronavirus in mink were noted in spring in Europe. Scientists noticed the first spillover of COVID-19 from humans to mink, and mink to human, in April 2020 in the Netherlands. Since that time similar instances have been found in Denmark, Spain, Italy, the USA, Sweden, Greece, and most recently, Poland. With regard to these infections, according the The Lancet: Infection Diseases, the concern has been the possibility of the virus within the mink who had been infected by humans being passed back to humans after mutating in ways that might render human vaccines under development useless. Furthermore, other animals farmed by their fur such as foxes and raccoon dogs may infect humans with coronaviruses, and presumably the potential for such mutations exist with them as well. Although it is unclear whether the virus had been passed from humans to the mink or vice versa, in July, Spain culled nearly 100,000 farmed mink at one farm alone after seven staff members and 87% of the animals tested positive for the coronavirus. (The scope of that slaughter at one farm alone is simply unfathomable.) By that time, over one million mink had been slaughtered in the Netherlands, and that figure has grown worldwide since that time. 

It does now seem the culling frenzy might have been ill informed. By November 10th the Danish government had postponed its ongoing plan to cull all of the country’s 15-plus million farmed mink when it was pointed out both that the mutations noted did not pose a serious threat to undermining human vaccines. Of course, whether the mink were gassed for a COVID-19 cull or later for their fur are equal evils for those animals involved.

Animal protection advocates are spotlighting the spread of COVID-19 within captive mink populations to (again) call for the ending of fur farming. Dr. Joanna Swabe, of Human Society International, said, “In addition to fur factory farming being inherently cruel, the potential for zoonotic disease spread, and for mink fur farms in particular to act as reservoirs for coronaviruses, incubating pathogens transmissible to humans, is an unavoidably compelling reason for the world to call time on fur farming.”

Some governments are heeding that call. Fur farming is already banned in several countries, including the UK, Austria, Croatia, Czechia, Luxembourg and Belgium. In other countries, such as Germany and Switzerland, it highly regulated. France has announced a fur farming ban to be completed by 2025, as has the Dutch parliament, with a phase out by 2024 (recently changed to 2022), Israel has announced it will ban the fur trade, and a bill banning fur farming is making its way through the Polish parliament

The issue has not escaped popular culture. A November 13, 2020 piece in the fashion magazine, Vogue, “Millions of Mink Being Slaughtered in Denmark Proves Why Fashion Needs to Disown Fur” declares the fashion industry finally needs to disown fur. It notes, “No longer the marker of luxury it was, fur is now often seen as a retrograde product mired in unjustifiable ethical issues.” On the same day, in what could usher in the beginning of the end for the global fur trade, the world’s largest fur auction house, Kopenhagen Fur, announced it will close its doors within the next two to three years

The case of the COVID-19/mink/human connection highlights not only another instance of the unnecessary cruelties and deaths caused by the fur farming trade, but also our shared continuities and deep interconnectedness with other animals. If the trend to do away with fur farming holds, perhaps we might view this positively, as an instance of human awakening brought about by COVID-19. I would like to think so. But whether this collective human decision shows actual concern for the suffering of these animals or mere fretfulness and alarm aimed at human self-preservation, we’ll take it—for the animals.