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Testing begins for mutant Covid virus in Irish mink

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People prepare mink for culling at the farm of Henrik Nordgaard Hansen and Ann-Mona Kulsoe Larsen near Naestved, Denmark, November 6, 2020. Photo: Ritzau Scanpiox/Mads Claus Rasmussen via REUTERS.

People prepare mink for culling at the farm of Henrik Nordgaard Hansen and Ann-Mona Kulsoe Larsen near Naestved, Denmark, November 6, 2020. Photo: Ritzau Scanpiox/Mads Claus Rasmussen via REUTERS.

People prepare mink for culling at the farm of Henrik Nordgaard Hansen and Ann-Mona Kulsoe Larsen near Naestved, Denmark, November 6, 2020. Photo: Ritzau Scanpiox/Mads Claus Rasmussen via REUTERS.

Tests on mink in Irish fur farms are expected to reveal by the end of this week whether any  are carrying the mutated form of coronavirus.

Department of Agriculture staff carried out tests on animals in the three farms yesterday amid the spread of the disease among farmed mink abroad, and a growing incidence of the new form being found in humans.

The Department of Health is also carrying out precautionary tests on mink farm workers and their household contacts.

GPs have been told to be on the alert for possible cases of the new strain, with particular caution to be exercised in relation to travellers from Denmark, where the biggest outbreak has occurred.

The mutated virus is not believed to be any more serious than the original form but it could complicate the process of creating an effective vaccine just as the first major breakthroughs on vaccine development are being made.

A circular issued to doctors by the Irish College of General Practitioners warns that extra vigilance is required to stop the mutation taking hold.

“All clinicians are requested to maintain increased awareness of the possibility of Covid-19 in persons who have travelled from Denmark in the previous 14 days,” the circular says.

It says any such patient should self-isolate, seek testing if they have any symptoms suggestive of
Covid-19, and avoid all healthcare facilities for any routine or elective appointments until the restrictive period is over.

Denmark is the second EU country to order a complete cull of mink in its hundreds of fur farms, with 15 million animals to be destroyed.

The Netherlands had already culled all its farmed mink and permanently shut the farms, bringing forward a planned phase-out that was due to take effect in 2024. A small number of cases has also been reported in Italy, Spain, Sweden and the United States.

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The Government here promised last year to legislate for the phase-out of mink farms but drafting of a bill has only recently begun.

The Department of Agriculture said it had issued advice on numerous occasions to the three farms in Laois, Kerry and Donegal over the past few months following the discovery of the initial cases in the Netherlands, and no imported mink had come into Ireland this year.

Ireland’s fur farming industry is small by European standards having diminished from a few dozen farms in the 1960s to just three now. Just over 100,000 mink pelts are produced here annually out of around 44 million across Europe.

The industry is condemned by animal rights groups, however, and it is the source of Ireland’s problematic wild mink population which grew from escapees from the original farms.

According to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, up to 35,000 wild mink live here, preying on native small mammals and ground nesting birds as well as raiding poultry stocks.

The Department of Agriculture said there was currently no suggestion that wild mink were carrying any strain of Covid and the focus was currently on handling any potential outbreak on farms.

It said a decision on what further steps, if any, should be taken would be made when the test results were back.

Scientists believe the original virus was passed to the farmed mink by farm workers.

It is then believed to have spread easily among the closely packed cages in sheds typically containing thousands of animals where it underwent the mutation before being passed back
to humans.

TDs and councillors in Kerry, Donegal and Laois, along with two ministers for agriculture, have been lobbied by the Brussels-based Fur Europe industry group several times in the past year, urging retention of the farms here.


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