Nova Scotia pays for COVID-19 vaccines for mink, B.C. says no before closing industry

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Nova Scotia will help pay for a COVID-19 vaccine for mink, but the British Columbia government says more research is needed to determine if immunization is an option for thousands of animals that will soon be banned from the province.

Nova Scotia's Agriculture Department said the vaccination program, to be launched soon at five farms until the end of December, is based on advice from veterinarian and medical experts as part of a trial offering 54,000 doses to mink farms in that province.

The province will split the cost with the federal government as part of previously announced funding for the agricultural sector, the department said in an emailed statement.

"The industry will provide in-kind work for administering the vaccine to the mink," it said.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it granted permission to import an experimental vaccine for mink from the United States following discussions with the Public Health Agency of Canada, the provinces and the industry.

"Vaccination began in August 2021 and is restricted for emergency use under licensed veterinarian supervision," it said in a statement.

News of the mink vaccination program comes after the Agriculture Ministry in British Columbia announced live mink would not be permitted on farms by April 2023 and its industry would be phased out two years later.

It said public health concerns are behind the plan to shut down nine farms in the Fraser Valley that currently have about 318,000 mink.

Matt Moses, past president of the Canadian Mink Breeders Association, said that group worked with the Nova Scotia government to begin the vaccination program. British Columbia, he argued, should also have taken advantage of the vaccine for its animals instead of shuttering the entire sector.

"We tried to talk with the government about offering the vaccine to protect the entire herd in British Columbia and they refused to offer any funding assistance for that," said Moses, a mink farmer who represents the Nova Scotia Mink Breeders Association and sits on the executive board of the national group.

"Now they're using the guise of a pandemic as a reason to close an industry for which they've been looking for a reason for a long time," he said of B.C., which he maintains "caved" to pre-pandemic pressure from animal welfare groups.

The B.C.Agriculture Ministry said it was not aware of any funding request.

"The ministry does not pay for vaccinations for commercial farm operations. Vaccinations under the direction of their veterinarian are the responsibility of every farmer in the care of their animals," it said in an emailed statement.

"We have followed the advice of public health and infectious disease experts that more research is needed to determine if a vaccine could be an option."

The national association has also reached out to Ontario, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador to consider paying for a mink vaccination program as part of a possible cost-sharing agreement with the federal government, said Moses, adding New Brunswick and Quebec have smaller operations.

British Columbia's provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Agriculture Minister Lana Popham cited outbreaks on three mink farms since late last year when they announced the closure last week.

Henry said mink farming is a health hazard because the animals could be a reservoir for the virus.

Scott Weese, an infectious disease veterinarian of the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, said B.C. made a necessary and proactive decision to avoid further spread of COVID-19 between the animals and humans.

He said mink are relatively susceptible to respiratory infections that can easily spread at farms where animals are housed together.

"If it's present in the animals, we've got more risk of new strains. And that's going to be a challenge over the long term," Weese said.

"It all comes down to the cost-benefit aspect of it. We've got a plausible risk and we've got pretty minimal benefits apart from to the farmers. And it's a very small number of farmers."

About 70 mink farms are currently operating in Canada as part of an industry that exports pelts to countries including China, but Weese said the exact number is tough to estimate because some farms are not licensed.

While animal welfare issues are a significant concern, there are clear problems associated with mink farms that pose risks for future pandemics, he said.

Cats are among animals that can also contract COVID-19 and pass it on to people, Weese noted, adding those infections are likely to stay within a household. On mink farms, by contrast, he said the virus could spread among thousands of animals while workers could carry it further into communities.

While the mink farming industry is winding down in B.C., Nova Scotia began boosting the sector by offering separate funding to 24 licensed producers starting in January.

The Agriculture Department said 12 of those farms have so far received nearly $780,000 as part of the program aimed at strengthening the industry's market position.

"Maintaining public trust is a goal of the Nova Scotia Mink Breeders Association, and this program supports members by assuring the highest level of care," the department said in an emailed statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2021.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

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