Humans aren’t the only creatures at risk from dying of covid-19, it seems. In recent weeks, the state of Utah has been dealing with mass die-offs at mink farms that health officials believe are linked to the viral pandemic—outbreaks that likely began from contact with infected human handlers. So far, nearly 10,000 minks in Utah are thought to have died during these outbreaks in the span of two weeks.
According to Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF), these deaths have been concentrated among nine fur farms in the state. Shortly before dying, UDAF veterinarian Dean Taylor told NBC News, these minks experience respiratory symptoms like trouble breathing or runny noses and eye discharge, similar to what happens in people sick with covid-19. As with people, older minks seem to be more susceptible to dying from the coronavirus, he added.
For months now, scientists have known that minks and other weasels, like ferrets, can become infected with the coronavirus that causes covid-19, and that they can catch it from infected humans. Unlike cats, dogs, and other animals that the virus has infected through human contact, however, weasels seem to be especially vulnerable to more serious illness. That’s made these animals a useful model for studying the virus outside of a petri dish in the lab, but it’s also made them an easy target for the virus in the real world.
Indeed, Utah’s outbreaks are not the first to have hit mink farms. Earlier outbreaks in the Netherlands and Spain prompted officials there to cull more than 1 million minks to prevent the infection from spreading further. So far, no minks in Utah have been killed as a precaution during these recent outbreaks, though affected farms have enacted quarantines. The UDAF is also working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies to secure more personal protective equipment and training for farmers working with minks in the state.
As dire as these outbreaks have been for the mink industry, the danger to people seems to be low. Though people can spread the virus to minks and other animals, the risk of these animals then spreading the infection back to other susceptible people is thought to be very low, according to the CDC.
That said, the original strain of the coronavirus that became responsible for covid-19 likely came from an unknown animal source, possibly bats.