The ongoing H5N1 avian influenza outbreak is an unprecedented event in its size, scope and duration (but it’s not getting much press anymore these days). As infections continue to occur is birds in large numbers over a vast geographic range, we worry about spillover events into other species.
There have now been many reports of H5N1 influenza infection in a variety of wild mammals, including foxes, skunks, raccoons and most recently bears. Sporadic transmission into wild mammals that live fairly solitary lives and probably aren’t (currently) great hosts for the virus raises concern, but the broader risks are probably limited because of the low odds that rare infections would result in a relevant change in the virus or recombination with another flu virus. However, more infections create more risk, and infections of species with more animal-to-animal contact, and animal-to-human contact amplify that risk.
That’s why the recent report of H5N1 avian flu on a mink farm in Spain raises some alarm bells. Infection of a farm with tens of thousands of mink is a whole lot different than infection of the odd free-roaming fox or raccoon.
The good news is that even though the report just came out, the outbreak occurred in October, and there’s no evidence I’ve seen that this resulted in a broader issue. The bad news is that it shows what can potentially happen (and surveillance is far from good enough to say that this hasn’t caused an issue).
The report is about an outbreak on a farm in Spain that housed over 50 000 mink. Concerns were raised when the mink mortality rate increased in October, suggesting something was going on. It seemed like a pretty classic infectious disease problem, as it started in one barn and was characterized by “multiple ‘hot spots’ within the affected barns consisting of 2–4 pens where all the animals died within a period of 1–2 days.” Mortality rates then increased in neighbouring barns, then eventually across the whole farm. Infection with SARS-CoV-2 was initially the main concern, as has been seen on mink farms in many countries now, but tests for that were negative. Eventually they confirmed H5N1 flu as the cause of illness in the mink, and sequencing of the virus showed it was the same clade (220.127.116.11b) that’s been circulating in birds in Europe.
The decision was made to cull the mink, and over the course of about a month, all of the mink were euthanized and their remains disposed.
Farm workers were tested at one point, and all 11 were negative. That was good news, but single point-in-time testing of people exposed to an infected mink farm over the course of weeks doesn’t rule out transmission. (Though it’s worth noting employees were already required to use enhanced precautions, like wearing masks, because of the concerns over SARS-CoV-2 transmission to (and from) the mink, which may have also helped limit transmission of flu.) One of the workers later developed flu-like signs but tested negative for flu virus. Because of the disease transmission concerns, a “semi-quarantine” of the people was performed to limit contact with other people for 10 days after their last contact with the farm.
The source of the outbreak isn’t known. It’s possible that it was introduced by poultry products fed to the mink, but there’s no evidence that any supply farms were infected. It’s much more likely that wild birds were the source, and infected wild birds had already been found in the area at the time of the outbreak. This highlights concerns about mink farms as a wildlife/domestic animal/human interface. It’s hard to keep wildlife away from a mink farm, which creates risk for transmission both from and to wildlife. If wild birds can infect mink, it’s equally likely that wild birds (and other wildlife) could be infected from mink, through contact with the mink farm environment. A virus that spreads to the mink can then spread to human farm workers, domestic animals on the farm, or other “visiting” wildlife. That’s not a comforting scenario.
The report concludes by stating that the mink sector is still important economically and “it is necessary to strengthen the culture of biosafety and biosecurity in this farming system and promote the implementation of ad hoc surveillance programs for influenza A viruses and other zoonotic pathogens at a global level”. I agree with the second part of this statement, but as for the first part, we need to think and risk versus reward. Are the benefits of mink farming worth the risks that come with raising large numbers of animals that are susceptible to various human viruses, in close proximity and with ongoing contact with people and wildlife? The broader societal benefits of mink farming are (to me) negligible, and the risks may be low, but they are not zero and not adequately understood.
Image from https://www.bbc.com/news/business-37679652