Canadian mink breeders are closely eyeing a series of coronavirus outbreaks at European and American mink farms that have forced authorities to cull millions of animals possibly infected with the disease.
Merv Wiseman, vice-president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Fur Breeders Association, says mink farmers are on guard after outbreaks in the Netherlands forced more than 100 mink farms to close. COVID-19 has also torn through mink farms in Denmark, the world's largest producer of mink pelts, where authorities have exterminated more than 2.5 million animals. Outbreaks have also been detected in Spain and the United States.
"Our understanding now is that it's really spread like wildfire.... We're very alert and vigilant and making sure that all of our security issues are in place, with all the precautionary moves and all of the contingencies," Wiseman said.
Alan Herscovici, who works with national industry association Canada Mink Breeders, told Radio-Canada that mink farms are tightening their biosecurity measures — the protocols in place to ensure viruses and wild animals stay out of their facilities.
"We've known for a while that mink are vulnerable to human influenza, the flu. But now we know they are also vulnerable to COVID-19 and that they can catch it from humans," Herscovici said. "We've advised our employers that if an employee is sick, they shouldn't be working with animals."
As before, safety gloves, jackets and boots are required when handling animals, and access to sites is restricted to workers responsible for feeding and husbandry.
Herscovici said the outbreaks detected in Europe appear to have been due to infected staff who transmitted the virus to the animals with which they worked. He added certain studies have pointed to possible COVID-19 transmission from minks to humans, but that pathway for the virus hasn't been proven.
What happens if there's an outbreak?
As things stand, COVID-19 hasn't made its way into Canadian mink farms. And breeders would like to keep it that way.
But in the event an outbreak is detected, both Wiseman and Herscovici said the provincial chief veterinary officer is immediately notified and public health officials would then decide how to proceed. A quarantine of a barn or entire farm could be erected, or an entire population could be exterminated, Herscovici said.
In severe cases, as seen in Europe, "we will euthanize all the animals just to control the disease and ensure that it doesn't spread," Herscovici said.
While many of the minks are raised for the specific purpose of harvesting their pelt, he said, others are kept specifically for breeding. The loss of those animals, which have been bred for specific genetic traits, means an substantial loss for breeders.
Another hard knock for a struggling industry
Wiseman said the fur industry was already facing difficulties before the pandemic struck — the result of overproduction and pelt prices that cratered after a historic peak. The economic downturn caused by the pandemic and the restrictions on travel, which severely limit the chance of selling pelts at auction, are just the latest setbacks, he said.
Six years ago, when there were around 25 mink farms in Newfoundland and Labrador, mink pelts could fetch around $100 apiece, Herscovici said. Today, they run for about $40 each. There are just six farms left in the province, according to the provincial Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture.
"The fur industry has been at an all-time low in terms of return on investment," Wiseman said. He said it looked like the industry was about to turn around, because some of the bigger consumer countries, like Russia and China, were starting to rebound.
"Then COVID hit and, I mean, any sort of recovery just did not happen.
"It's gone south in ways that you just can't even imagine."
Compensation for European breeders
Wiseman said some European breeders have received government compensation after COVID outbreaks, but Canadian governments haven't announced similar safeguards for the fur industry.
On Monday, Elvis Loveless, the Newfoundland and Labrador minister of fisheries, forestry and agriculture, declined to appear before reporters outside the House of Assembly.
In a statement, his department said any decision regarding quarantine or testing of animals following an outbreak will be made in collaboration with public health officials and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.