Denmark: Millions of mink to be exhumed due to health fears

Swift decision to slaughter driven by Covid-19 mutation, but decaying carcasses pose hazard

The decision to demand all Danish mink be culled was appropriate, according to the Danish government. File photograph: Getty

The decision to demand all Danish mink be culled was appropriate, according to the Danish government. File photograph: Getty


Denmark will dig up millions of dead mink after a hasty cull and burial intended to stamp out a coronavirus mutation ended with rotting carcasses triggering a new contamination risk.

The exhumation of about four million mink will take place in May, with a six-month waiting period deemed sufficient to ensure the bodies will be free of the virus and safe to handle. Once dug up, the mink will be incinerated as corporate waste. Health authorities said keeping the animals buried poses “no immediate pollution risk with regard to lakes, streams as well as drinking water”.

The government is trying to close a chapter that forced a cabinet minister to resign and ended Denmark’s reputation as a country that had fought off the pandemic more ably than most.

Prime minister Mette Frederiksen has had to defend her role in the debacle, after it emerged she did not, initially, have the legal mandate to demand a full cull of Denmark’s roughly 15.4 million mink. The hasty process that followed drew harsh criticism from parliament and the country’s mink industry, which just a few months ago had been the world’s largest.

Danish politicians on Monday passed a law to ban mink breeding, retroactively creating the legal basis for its controversial cull order in November over fears of worsening the coronavirus epidemic. The law will prohibit mink breeding until 2022.

Ms Frederiksen said her government’s decision to demand all Danish mink be culled was appropriate. The country’s top epidemiologist warned at the time that the animals were highly efficient at spreading coronavirus and the PM said Danish scientists were worried that the mutation found in the country’s mink could derail vaccine efforts.

Parliament has finalised the scope of an inquiry charged with looking into Ms Frederiksen’s role in the decision, with a commission due to start its work in April and file its conclusions by the spring of 2022.

What is the mink risk?

There are several other countries that produce mink and that have detected coronavirus strains in the animals, namely Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden and the US. None has so far taken the same drastic steps as Denmark.

In early November, the World Health Organisation said the mutation found in Denmark “highlights the important role that farmed mink populations can play in the ongoing transmission of Sars-CoV-2 and the critical role of strong surveillance, sampling and sequencing Sars-CoV-2, especially around areas where such animal reservoirs are identified.”

The organisation said it advises “all countries to enhance surveillance for Covid-19 at the animal-human interface where susceptible animal reservoirs are identified, including mink farms”.

In a separate development, Denmark has joined other European countries in imposing a 48-hour ban on arrivals from the United Kingdom, where a rapidly spreading mutation of the virus has been detected among humans.

Danish health authorities say nine cases of Britain’s mutated strain have been recorded in Denmark. – Bloomberg/Reuters

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