Mink are not a species most people think about. When they do, they typically think of mink coats or fur farming protests. While the mink industry has been on the decline in most regions for many years, there is still a massive number of mink being farmed for fur internationally. Some of these farms are very large, which makes for lots of animals in close contact with each other, and in contact with their human caretakers, which leads to the risk of pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2 passing back and forth between them all.
Mink aren’t the only critters in the mustelid family that are a concern when it comes to SARS-CoV-2. Any species from the mustelid family probably has similar susceptibility to the virus. The domestic pet relative of mink is the ferret. Ferrets are “niche” pets but they’re far from rare, and many ferrets have very close contact with their owners.
So, we have widely different issues in how we manage and interact with different mustelids, whether on a farm, in the home or in the wild. Regardless, the net result is situations where there’s a good chance for respiratory virus transmission.
What’s the story with mink and SARS2CoV-2?
There’s been a lot of attention paid to mink during the COVID-19 pandemic, even since the original review I posted last October. I think it’s fair to say this caught us off guard. No one was talking about mink or risks to/from mink farms at the start of the outbreak, even among those of us who were thinking about risks from other species (lots of people tried to ignore animal risks altogether from what was clearly an animal-origin virus, but that’s a rant for another day).
While we may not have initially paid attention to mink, SARS-CoV-2 did. Mink are highly susceptible to this virus, and there have been widespread outbreaks on mink farms, first identified in the Netherlands but subsequently in multiple countries as well (including Canada and the US).
What happens when SARS-CoV-2 makes its way (from people) onto a mink farm varies, and there are still lots of knowledge gaps. Some affected farms have had few health issues, while others have reported widespread illness and deaths amongst mink, especially older or pregnant mink. The virus seems to have persisted on some farms, at least for a while, with little apparent disease, while on others it seemed to burn through the population and then disappear like a more classic respiratory outbreak. Why? We’re not sure. This virus clearly can cause disease in mink, but it doesn’t always. There may be a predilection for severe disease in mink of a certain age, or in pregnant mink (as with people), but there are still lots of things we don’t understand.
Can mink infect people with SARS-CoV-2?
For most species, I say “we don’t know if they can infect people and it would be hard to figure out”, we know that SARS-CoV-2 can definitely be transmitted from mink back to people, because of the nature of spread and sampling that has been done on mink farms and the people who work on them. If mink and people on a farm all had positive tests, you couldn’t necessarily determine whether some of the people were infected by mink or whether the people all infected each other. However, viral sequencing and the timing of infections on some mink farms has provided more information than we can usually get. Tiny, mainly innocuous changes in the virus commonly occur during replication, and those changes create a kind of “signature” that can help us track the virus better. Using sequencing, you can track how the virus evolves on a farm, where the initial infections are a strain that’s present in people in the community (since that’s where the virus usually comes from), and then the strain changes a bit as it’s transmitted over and over between mink. If that slightly modified strain then pops up in people on the farm, it’s strongly suggestive that the virus was spread from mink back into people.
Are mink farms a reservoir for the SARS-CoV-2 virus?
That’s an important question and a big concern. “Reservoir” can be considered a few different ways. The main concern is whether the virus can spread on a farm for prolonged periods of time, creating an ongoing source of exposure to people (and possibly wildlife) on the farm, including new variants of the virus.
Can the virus spread from mink farms to the community?
- Yes. That’s been shown. It’s rare in the grand scheme of human COVID-19, but it has happened.
Can the virus spread from farmed mink to wildlife or other animals?
- When SARS-CoV-2 is present on a farm, there could be exposure of a range of wildlife that may come and go from the property through contact with mink feces (which fall through the animals’ cages and accumulate under them) or from aerosol exposure (e.g. virus in dust particles within the animal sheds). There’s also the potential for exposure of farm animals (farm dogs, barn cats). Transmission to farm dogs and cats has been identified.
- Infected “feral” mink were found around an infected farm in the US; these were presumably mink that had escaped at some point from a nearby farm, but it shows another way the virus can make its way off the farm. This has also been seen in Spain, where infected feral American mink were found (and at some distance from the closest mink farm…). Since American mink are not native to Europe, it’s safe to say those mink (or their ancestors) were escapees at some point. Where the virus could go from there is a good question. It might just burn out in the wildlife population (since wild mink are primarily solitary creatures), but if it’s able to continue to find susceptible hosts (e.g. wild mink, certain mouse species, white tailed deer), it’s possible mink farms could be a source of broader spread, bridging human SARS-CoV-2 with wildlife.
Can the SARS-CoV-2 virus be sustained on a mink farm long term?
- A big factor that might influence the risk from mink farms is whether there is long term, sustained transmission of the virus within the farmed animal population. If the virus enters a farm, burns through the population quickly, and is eliminated (either naturally or through culling of infected animals), then there’s lots of transmission but over a very short period of time. If SARS-CoV-2 enters a farm and continues to spread over months (or even) years by continuing to find new susceptible mink in the population to infect (or re-infect), the risk probably increases substantially. We don’t know how much of a risk it is, but we know there’s some risk because the virus already seems to have maintained itself on certain farms for a long period of time (months). We still have limited information about the long term outcomes, because many infected farms were depopulated, and on those that weren’t long term testing wasn’t necessarily done (or reported).
Are mink a source of new variants of SARS-CoV-2?
In the first 3 parts of this review update that I posted last month, I dismissed the potential for dogs, cats and pigs to be significant sources of new SARS-CoV-2 variants because of reasons like poor susceptibility (pigs), minimal virus shedding (pigs, dogs) or lack of enough animals in close contact for sustained transmission within the animal population (dogs, cats).
Unfortunately, mink create the perfect storm for new variant emergence. They are a highly susceptible species that can effectively transmit the virus mink-to-mink and mink-to-human, and they are raised in large enough groups that there can be widespread and sustained transmission. Since variants emerge due to random mutations, and the likelihood of that is dependent on lots of virus replication, and more transmission leads to more replication, variant emergence is definitely a concern on large mink farms.
“Mink strains” of SARS-CoV-2 have been identified. Whether that’s because the virus adapted to be better able to infect mink or the changes were purely random (i.e. conferring no specific advantage to the new strain in terms of infecting more mink) isn’t clear. However, the new strains provide a way to help track virus transmission in some situations. In early outbreaks, there was concern about a mink variant that was identified in the Netherlands. There was also concern that mink strains with a common mutation (Y453F) that spread from mink farms into the general human population in Denmark might be less responsive to antibody-based treatments used in people (these are important therapies for high-risk people with early infection). However, there was no evidence that these mink strains would compromise vaccine efficacy, and fortunately they didn’t end up being a significant problem as they weren’t any worse than “regular” strains in people in terms of disease. In fact, there’s some (albeit pretty weak) evidence that mink-derived variants might be less virulent in people. I think we have to assume both things could happen: mink could be the source of new variants of concern that pose more risk to people, as well as new variants that would pose less risk to people. We can’t really predict what will happen, or when.
Realistically, the biggest risk of variant emergence still lies in the human population, since we still have rampant human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 internationally. But mink are a potential source, and all it takes is one event with the right (or wrong) mutation to cause a problem. Further, as we (eventually) control this virus in the human population, animal reservoirs will become more important, as the relative risk from them will increase if true reservoirs are being created through infection of different wild and domestic animal populations.
How about ferrets? Are they as susceptible as mink to SARS-CoV-2?
Whether ferrets are “as susceptible” to the virus is hard to say, since they haven’t been directly compared. However, ferrets are clearly susceptible and are able to effectively transmit the virus to other ferrets. We’ve seen this in multiple experimental studies where ferrets were infected, got sick and were able to transmit the virus ferret-to-ferret.
I was a bit surprised that we didn’t see reports of naturally infected pet ferrets early in the pandemic. That was likely because of limited numbers of ferrets and limited testing. In our surveillance, we only got to test a handful of ferrets. Despite the small number of reports, there have been documented infections in pet ferrets (e.g. Giner et al. 2021, Gortazar et al. 2021, Racnik et al. 2021) As with dogs and cats, infection in ferrets is likely under-diagnosed, and may actually be a common event that occurs under the radar in households where people have COVID-19. I assume the odds are 50:50 or greater than a ferret from a household with active COVID-19 in a person is, was or will become infected, if it has close and/or regular contact with infected people.
The health impact of SARS-CoV-2 infection on pet ferrets hasn’t been well described. Some get sick, but it’s mainly been mild disease, which fits with the findings of experimental studies as well. Some report infections with limited or no obvious signs of disease (e.g. Shi et al. 2020, Schlottau et al. 2020, Kim et al. 2020). However, more serious disease, sometimes requiring euthanasia, has been reported. That might be related to the dose of virus, as high doses were used in the experimental study where more serious disease was encountered. The overall health risk to pet ferrets is probably low, but we can’t rule out the potential for severe disease, particularly in older or pregnant ferrets, or ferrets with pre-existing health problems.
Can ferrets infect people with SARS-CoV-2?
We don’t know, but they probably could. Since ferrets are susceptible and can infect other ferrets, and we know that mink can infect people, it makes sense that ferrets could also infect people. However, the true risk to ferret owners needs to be considered. Being able to infect a person is one thing. Actually being an important source of infection is another. To pose a risk, ferrets have to first be exposed to a person with SARS-CoV-2 infection. This would almost always be their owner. In that situation, the owner poses greater risk to other people in the household than the ferret does. The main risk to others is if the ferret leaves the household (e.g. if it needs to be taken to a veterinary clinic for an exam) during the period when the household members are infected.
What are the recommendations when it comes to mink, ferrets and SARS-CoV-2?
Anyone with COVID-19 should absolutely not go anywhere near a mink farm. Period. That’s the big one. If we’re going to continue to farm mink for fur, there needs to be a strong focus on biosecurity and surveillance for this virus. Surveillance is an issue because of cost (i.e. who pays?) and the general lack of desire among many parties involved to really know what’s going on (especially if the mink don’t look sick).
In terms of ferrets, the same general approach that we recommend for dogs and cats applies:
- If you have COVID-19, try to limit or avoid contact with your ferret.
- If your ferret has been exposed to someone with COVID-19, keep it away from other people and animals.
- If your ferret has been exposed to someone with COVID-19 and is sick, let your veterinarian know, to help determine whether it might be infected with SARS-CoV-2 (do that by phone, at least initially, rather than showing up to the veterinary clinic directly with your ferret).
Next up for a review update… horses.