12th November 2020: Scientists at the World Health Organization and around the globe have been studying another mutated variant of the novel coronavirus which is infecting humans after spreading through mink farms in the north of Denmark.
According to reports from The BMJ, found in 12 patients in Denmark, a new strain of mutated SARS-CoV-2 appeared in laboratory tests, which exhibited “decreased susceptibility” to antibodies compared to previously infected people, as reported in a preliminary report by the country’s State Serum Institute.
It also warned that this variant, if it spread, will not be able to be controlled easily by the COVID-19 vaccines currently under development.
According to the Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, the only safe option is to cull all 17 million minks kept by the Danish fur industry as Denmark supplies around a third of the global mink fur demand.
“We have a great responsibility towards our own population, but with the mutation that has now been found we have an even greater responsibility for the rest of the world,” Frederiksen discussed in a press conference on 6 November.
“The mutated virus in minks could pose a risk that future vaccines won’t work as they should. It risks being spread from Denmark to other countries. The eyes of the world are on us.”
Frederiksen announced the implementation of local lockdowns in seven districts of North Jutland, where the majority of the fur industry is concentrated. As a protest against this, mink farmers took to the roads in their tractors as public health teams began a cull that is expected to last two weeks. As a consequence, Germany and the UK added Denmark to their quarantine lists.
Like most other mammals, minks too are susceptible to infection by the coronavirus, which spread rapidly throughout Denmark’s densely caged mink farm populations this summer. Similar outbreaks have already triggered smaller culls at mink farms in Spain, the Netherlands, and the US.
However, research has shown that the mink variant viruses do not spread faster nor do they cause more severe symptoms than other strains of SARS-CoV-2. Various experts have hence come forth and expressed scepticism over Danish government claims that these mutations could seriously undermine vaccine efforts.
As a response, Danish authorities have uploaded genetic sequences onto public databases for other scientists to study.
A WHO statement states that the cluster 5 variant has “moderately decreased sensitivity to neutralising antibodies.” “[It] had a combination of mutations, or changes that have not been previously observed. The implications of the identified changes in this variant are not yet well understood.”
According to Maria van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, this was a “concern.” However, she further added that “mutations are normal, I don’t think we should come to any conclusions about whether this particular mutation is going to impact vaccine efficacy.”
“We need to wait and see what the implications are,” explained WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan.
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