New assessment shows high risk of introduction and spread from fur farming of the virus that causes COVID-19

New assessment shows high risk of introduction and spread from fur farming of the virus that causes COVID-19
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A global risk assessment conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Organisation for Animal health (OIE) and WHO has shown that the overall risk of introduction and spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus that causes COVID-19, from the fur-farming system to humans and to susceptible wildlife populations in the WHO European Region is considered high.

The global tripartite conducted the risk assessment in light of the Region’s high number of fur farms, the wide variety of susceptible animal species used in fur farming, and the high number of overall cases of COVID-19 reported among the human population.

WHO European Region – the largest producer of fur

It is well documented that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can transmit between humans and animals. In April 2020, the Netherlands was the first country to report SARS-CoV-2 in farmed minks. Since then, another 9 countries – 7 of which are in the European Region – have reported similar findings. The European Region includes the largest number of fur-producing countries of all WHO regions.

In November 2020, Denmark reported the detection of a mink-associated SARS-CoV-2 variant with a combination of mutations not previously observed (referred to as Cluster 5). Preliminary findings suggested a lower capability of antibodies to neutralize the strain, and isolates of the variant strain were shared with selected WHO reference laboratories.

Following these findings, WHO in collaboration with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) conducted a series of meetings with mink fur-producing countries as well as a survey about SARS-CoV-2 in mink farms in the European Region.

These efforts aimed to get an overview of the fur-farming industry in Europe, gather information about measures applied by countries to prevent and reduce virus transmission between humans and animals, and inform the development of the One Health risk assessment on SARS-CoV-2 in farmed fur animals.

Wide disparity in measures adopted across the Region

A total of 31 of the Region’s 53 Member States responded to the survey. Of these, 15 reported that they have a fur industry. The fur industry is dominated by minks, while chinchillas, sables, foxes, rabbits and racoon dogs make up a smaller proportion of farmed fur animals.

The collected information highlighted that measures and procedures vary widely from country to country. Fourteen of the 15 countries with a fur industry have implemented SARS-CoV-2 surveillance systems on fur farms. Nine countries have implemented surveillance systems to detect the virus in humans who work on the farms, and 8 have detected SARS-CoV-2 in mink farm workers.

Nine countries also reported that they analyse for variations in DNA sequences of SARS-CoV-2 viruses in animals, while 8 countries analyse for variations in DNA sequences of SARS-CoV-2 virus isolates detected in humans. The analyses have identified several combinations of mutations in mink-associated variants across countries.

The information also showed that both mandated and recommended biosecurity measures to prevent transmission of SARS-CoV-2 between animals and humans differ considerably across countries in the Region. This includes requirements for the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), access to the farms, and movement of animals and workers between farms.

Strict procedures needed

To prevent and reduce further spread between humans and fur-farmed animals, the One Health risk assessment provides a series of recommendations, in particular to:

  • enforce strict sanitary biosecurity measures against SARS-CoV-2;
  • provide and ensure the use of appropriate PPE by farm workers and visitors;
  • consider risk-based testing of animals for SARS-CoV-2 within the broader response to COVID-19;
  • sample and test susceptible wild species and other free-roaming animals in the vicinities of SARS-CoV-2-infected fur farms;
  • prevent farm workers with COVID-19 symptoms from entering farm premises;
  • conduct whole genome sequencing of viruses from human and animal cases and share virus isolates; and
  • enhance surveillance for COVID-19 at the animal–human interface where susceptible animal reservoirs are identified, including fur farms.

About One Health

One Health is an approach to designing and implementing programmes, policies, legislation and research in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes. The One Health approach is critical to addressing health threats at the animal–human–environment interface, and is particularly relevant to

  • food safety
  • control of zoonotic diseases
  • laboratory services
  • neglected tropical diseases
  • environmental health
  • antimicrobial resistance.