Enlarge /. Coronavirus has pervaded mink farms in Europe.
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The pandemic coronavirus has found its way on two mink farms in Utah and, according to an announcement by the US Department of Agriculture on Tuesday, resulted in an "unusually large number" of dead animals.
These are the first reported cases of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus infecting mink in the country. For months, authorities in European countries, including the Netherlands, Denmark and Spain, have been reporting outbreaks in mink fur farms that resulted in the culling of more than a million of the soft, furry mammals. Laboratory experiments also show that ferrets, a relative of mink, can also be easily infected with the novel coronavirus.
Affected farms in Utah reported cases of COVID-19 among people who work on the farms who may have transmitted the infection to the animals.
There are concerns that some mink have asymptomatic infections and could act as a reservoir, thereby continuing to spread the virus to other mink and possibly humans. The Dutch authorities have reported that farm workers may have contracted the virus from infected mink. However, the evidence is not final and even if the virus can jump from mink to humans, it is unclear how easily it can do it.
"There is currently no evidence that animals, including mink, play an important role in spreading the virus to humans," the USDA said in its announcement. "Due to the limited information available to date, the risk that animals will transmit SARS-CoV-2 to humans is classified as low."
Dean Taylor, Utah's state veterinarian, told the Washington Post that the affected mink farms currently have no plans to kill their animals.
"We don't feel we have enough information at this point to make that decision," said Taylor. “Most of these farms already have good biosecurity. I don't think they need to be overly concerned, but we all need to take it seriously. "
The infections were first noticed earlier this month after large numbers of animals began to die on the farms. Initial inspections suggested they had died of severe pneumonia similar to the cases seen in Europe, Tom Baldwin, a veterinary pathologist at Utah State University at Logan, told Science. The magazine found that there are 245 mink farms in 22 states, according to Fur Commission USA, the largest association of mink farmers in the country. More than a dozen of these farms are in Utah.