UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned today the new Covid-19 variant — called Cluster 5 — could have ‘grave consequences’ if it becomes widespread
More than 17million mink are being culled and dumped in mass graves in Denmark in a desperate bid to eradicate a mutated strain of coronavirus that could make vaccines less potent.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned today the new Covid-19 variant — called Cluster 5 — could have ‘grave consequences’ if it becomes widespread.
Mr Hancock told the House of Commons today the UK had acted ‘quickly and decisively’ by banning non-British citizens returning from Denmark and introducing strict quarantine rules for any Brit who’d recently returned from the country.
The emergence of Cluster 5 caused global panic because it appears to have some resistance to disease-fighting antibodies, substances produced by the immune system to fight off invaders. Most Covid-19 vaccines work by stimulating an antibody response.
Danish officials are trying to stomp it out before it spreads in the general public, though so far it is only known to have infected 13 people in the north of the country.
Shocking photos showed diggers and construction lorries offloading thousands of dead mink into hastily-dug mass graves, with workers in hazmat suits spraying down the vehicles with disinfectant.
The Danish environmental and health authorities announced the animals were being buried on military land near the northwestern town of Holstebro because there are not enough incinerators to burn all of the corpses.
Denmark’s plan to cull 17 million mink in the country is facing obstacles, however, after the government admitted it did not have legal basis for the order. At least 2million mink have already been killed.
Scientists believe the mutant virus jumped from fur farm workers to mink in the summer before it was passed back to humans. As it crossed between species, a mutation occurred on its ‘spike’ protein, which it uses to enter human cells.
It’s significant because the leading vaccine candidates — including Pfizer’s jab, which was yesterday revealed to be 90 per cent effective — work by targeting this protein. Although there is no proof yet the strain can hamper vaccines’ effectiveness, the location of the mutation means it is theoretically possible.
Mr Hancock said today: ‘On Thursday evening last I was alerted to a significant development in Denmark of a new evidence that the virus had spread back from mink to humans in a variant form that did not fully respond to Covid-19 antibodies.
‘Although the chance of this variant becoming widespread is low, the consequences should that happen would be grave, so working with the Home Secretary and the Transport Secretary, and all the devolved administrations, we removed the travel corridor for travel from Denmark in the early hours of Friday morning.’
More than 17million mink are being purged and dumped in mass graves in Denmark today
Mink are culled and skinned on a farm near Naestved in South Zealand. Henrik Nordgaard Hansen and Ann-Mona Kulsoe, who run the farm, are allowed to sell the fur because their mink are not known to be affected by coronavirus and there has been no recorded cases of Covid-infected mink in their region
The couple, who started farming mink for their fur in 1988, have to skin their animals within the next few days because of the nationwide order to cull all mink
It is a desperate bid to eradicate a mutated strain of coronavirus scientists believe is linked to fur farms
Danish officials are trying to stomp it out before its unleashed on the general public, though, so far, it is only known to have infected 13 people in northern Denmark
Shocking photos showed diggers and construction lorries offloading thousands of dead mink into ditches this morning
Workers at the Naestved mink farm, ran by Henrik Nordgaard Hansen and Ann-Mona Kulsoe Larsen, transport dead mink into a separate facility to be skinned
Workers in hazmat suits spray down the vehicles used to transport the mink with disinfectant
Danish health authorities, assisted by members of the Danish Armed Forces, dispose of dead mink on military land
Dead mink are pictured in the back of a truck before they are buried in the purposely-built mass graves
Mr Hancock added: ‘On Saturday and over the weekend following further clinical analysis, we introduced a full ban on all international travel from Denmark.
‘British nationals or residents who are returning from Denmark whether directly or indirectly can still travel here but must fully self-isolate along with all other members of their household until two weeks since they were in Denmark.
‘I know these are serious steps and I understand the consequences for people, but I think the whole House will understand why we had to act so quickly and decisively. Be in no doubt, we will do what needs to be done to protect this country.’
Farmers living in regions of Denmark not affected by the mutated strain of Covid-19 are still allowed to sell mink fur — but must still kill all their livestock by the end of this week.
UK guidance published yesterday means anyone admitted to hospital who has recently returned from Denmark will be treated in ‘strict’ quarantine.
It also says people who test positive for Covid-19 within a fortnight of arriving from the Scandinavian nation must be isolated and sent to a specialist infectious diseases centre for further tests.
UK officials fear a new variant of the virus could spark a fresh wave of new cases while the country is already in the midst of a second epidemic.
There is no evidence yet to suggest the new variant is any more infectious or deadly than the coronavirus infecting most people currently. And there are currently no known cases in the UK.
At the weekend non-British travellers coming from Denmark were banned from entering the UK, as health officials try to block the mutated strain from reaching British shores.
Members of Danish health authorities assisted by members of the Danish Armed Forces dispose dead mink in a military area near Holstebro
They had to wear personal protective gear and thoroughly disinfect all of the equipment used to try eradicate the new strain
Danish mink will be buried in mass graves on military land as the country’s incinerators and rendering plants struggle to keep up, the Danish environmental and health authorities announced
WHAT IS THE NEW COVID-19 STRAIN AND SHOULD YOU BE WORRIED?
What is going on in Denmark?
The coronavirus which originated in China and is currently racing through the world’s population was passed from humans to mink.
When it entered the mink population the virus was forced to mutate to multiply inside its new host and spread among the animals, creating a new strain.
At some point this new variant was then passed back to humans.
Should we be worried?
So far experts believe the new strain – known as Cluster 5 – is not more infectious or deadly than previous versions.
But there is a concern that it is less sensitive to antibodies – substances produced by the immune system to fight off infections.
Vaccines work by training the body to be able to unleash a wave of antibodies when the virus tries to infect people.
This has raised concerns that it might render any future Covid-19 vaccine less effective if it were to spread.
Danish specialists have warned it could theoretically start a new pandemic.
How did it happen?
All viruses naturally mutate as they spread.
The sole purpose of the virus is to replicate as many times as possible, and many pathogens evolve over time in order to become more infectious — which often makes them less deadly so they can survive for longer and be spread to more people.
It is believed SARS-CoV-2 originated in bats before jumping to humans in China, possibly via an intermediary species such as a pangolin.
Mink in Denmark are believed to have caught the virus from infected workers at fur farms.
The virus then mutated in the minks before ‘spilling back’ to reinfect humans.
Are there any mink in the UK?
The risk of something similar happening in the UK is low because fur farming has been banned here since 2002.
There are populations of wild mink in the UK after they were shipped over from America for fur farming decades ago.
But people rarely come into close contact with wild mink, meaning the threat of Covid-19 transmission is low.
Planes and ships from Denmark are now also being denied permission to land or dock in the UK and foreign lorry drivers are to be turned back from the border if they have recently travelled through the country.
Brits who have been in Denmark within the past 14 days must also self-isolate with their entire household.
Five different strains of mutant mink coronavirus have been spotted in 214 people in Denmark since June. Analysis by Denmark’s State Serum Institute revealed only one of these – known as Cluster 5 – is less sensitive to antibodies.
Antibodies are disease-fighting proteins made and stored by the immune system to fight off invaders in the future by latching onto their spike proteins.
But if they are unable to recognise proteins because they have mutated, it means the body may struggle to attack a virus the second time and lead to a second infection.
It raises fears the new strain could be harder to treat or vaccinate against.
Cluster 5 has been found in 12 people living in North Jutland – which has been placed under lockdown – and one person living in neighbouring Zealand.
Of the five farms where it was identified, only three of them were linked to four people with the infection, suggesting the strain is spreading between humans in the community.
Mr Hancock said there should be an ‘international’ discussion over the future of the mink farming industry in the wake of events.
Speaking to Parliament during a Covid-19 update, the Health Secretary said: ‘I think there is an international case on public health grounds for addressing this question of mink farming, which we banned in the UK two decades ago.
‘It was due to come to an end in Europe in 2023 anyway but people will have their own views on animal welfare grounds and I have certainly got mine.
‘But clearly on global public health grounds, there is a case to do everything we can to stop the retransmission of this virus into an animal population and then back again which can lead to these sorts of mutations that we have seen.’
The Department of Health and Social Care said: ‘There is no evidence to suggest a new strain of Covid-19 from Denmark is in the UK and, while there have been some reports of mink to human transmission, we do not consider this a risk as there are no fur farms in the UK.
‘We are working closely with international partners and we continue to keep the situation under review.
It is not uncommon for viruses to be able to jump between humans and other animals – which was also the case for H5N1, or bird flu, and H1N1, swine flu.
The sole purpose of any virus is to replicate as many times as possible. So when a virus jumps from one species to another it naturally mutates to adapt to a new host.
With Covid-19, tiny changes in its DNA occurred when it was passed to mink. It means that when the virus was passed back to humans its biology was different, so it may behave differently to other strains while inside humans.
Experts do not know if it will make the disease more infectious or deadly in humans, but they have warned it has the potential to.
Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline: ‘The virus jump is the result of it being transmitted to mink by the animal handlers and finding the ability to replicate in mink cells.
‘Mink is obviously a permissive species for the virus but in the process certain mutations, which are always present at some level, are selected as that form of the virus does better in mink cells compared to human.
‘This gives the mink virus, which can then spread easily among the very dense populations of animals on mink farms.
‘It happens in other viruses too, influenza for example, but it generally stops there.’
He added: ‘In theory, the mink form, which has mutations in the spike protein, could then evade the immune response generated to the vaccines currently in development and form Covid-19-2.
‘There are a lot of reasons why this would not happen easily, but it is a formal possibility which is why the mass cull has taken place.
‘Genetic drift in the virus is to be expected and cases like this do need tracking but my risk assessment would be that this is currently only a low-level threat.’
It comes after a prominent Government scientist claimed today that Britain will most likely have three coronavirus vaccines in its arsenal by the end of 2020 when data from studies of other promising candidates start to pour in over the coming weeks.
Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and a member of Number 10’s vaccine taskforce, said he expects Brits to get their hands on up to three jabs — including shots made by Pfizer and Oxford University — ‘before New Year’.
In more good news the expert claimed there was an ’80 per cent chance’ life in the UK will be back to normal by spring, provided the Government ‘doesn’t screw up the distribution of the vaccines’.
It came after Matt Hancock confirmed the NHS and the military are on standby to start rolling out Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine from the start of next month, with care home staff and residents at the front of the queue.
The Health Secretary said the first Brits will ‘most likely’ get access ‘within weeks’, as long as he vaccine clears the final hurdle of getting the green light from the UK’s medical watchdog.
Preliminary data from studies of the jab suggest it can protect nine out of 10 people from catching Covid-19, with the full results to be published later this month.
Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will then spend days rigorously poring over the study’s findings to make sure the vaccine is safe before allowing it to be dished out en masse.