SALEM — An environmental group is calling for an investigation into COVID-19 infections and possible transmission between humans and animals at about a dozen Oregon mink farms, following outbreaks in other states and countries.
The Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter Nov. 6 to the state Health Authority and Department of Agriculture, calling the situation an urgent public health threat.
Since August, the USDA has confirmed cases of COVID-19 at mink operations in Utah and Wisconsin, which have led to the culling of at least 13,400 animals.
In Denmark, 12 people were infected by a mutated strain of COVID-19 that spread from minks to humans. The nation is the world’s largest producer of mink skin and fur. The Danish government has ordered the country’s entire farmed mink population — 15 million animals — to to be culled to avoid undermining a future vaccine for the virus.
According to the World Health Organization, mink can act as a reservoir of COVID-19, and “pose a risk for virus spill-over from mink to humans.”
To date, six countries — the U.S., Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Italy — have found COVID-19 at mink farms.
In its letter to Oregon officials, the Center for Biological Diversity said the risk of similar cases in the state is no longer theoretical, and the time for an investigation is now.
“We therefore strongly request that you immediately send inspectors to all mink-rearing facilities, starting with the ones containing the largest concentration of animals, to conduct an investigation and ensure that these facilities do not imperil public health,” the letter states. “We further request that you promote public health and safety through transparency by making information about any cases of COVID-19 transmission on Oregon mink farms immediately available to the public.”
Andrea Cantu-Schomas, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, said the two agencies are working together on a response to the letter.
There are no immediate plans to investigate the state’s mink farms, Cantu-Schomas said. Rather, ODA and the state veterinarian are working with the mink industry to provide information on biosecurity, along with specific steps to avoid introducing COVID-19 at facilities.
Oregon has 11 permitted mink farms, with an estimated 438,327 animals. It is the fourth-largest pelt-producing state, behind Wisconsin, Utah and Idaho.
ODA has not received any reports of mink deaths from COVID-19, Cantu-Schomas said. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend against testing unless there are consistent symptoms on a mink farm with a potential history of exposure.
“Because Oregon has not had any reports of mortality, ODA is not testing at this time,” she said.
Michael Whelan, executive director of the Fur Commission USA, a national organization representing U.S. mink farmers, did not return a call for comment. As of 2018, there were 245 mink fur farms in 22 states producing 3.1 million pelts valued at $82.6 million.
While the Center for Biological Diversity says it does not want to spread alarm, it remains concerned that these facilities could, knowingly or unknowingly, be contributing to the spread of COVID-19 statewide, “or could even house or come to house new mutations of COVID-19 like the one discovered in Denmark.”
”We urge your prompt attention to this urgent public health threat,” the group wrote.