There is a ‘very low’ risk of mink spreading a mutant form of coronavirus to people living in the UK, Public Health England has insisted.
Fears over a newly-evolved strain of Covid have been raised after Denmark said one — dubbed ‘Cluster 5’ — was less responsive to antibodies, which could render a vaccine useless before one is even found.
But PHE has downplayed fears of a similar strain emerging in the UK and said the absence of fur farms will most likely stop the virus evolving in mink on British shores.
The agency added those living or working with the country’s one million ferrets — which are bought as pets and used in labs and pest control companies — are at a higher risk because they tend to be in close quarters with the animals. Ferrets are considered to pose a similar risk to mink because the two animals are close relatives.
The UK has imposed travel bans on anyone coming to the country from Denmark, and refused access to ships trying to dock on British shores from the Scandinavian nation over fears the strain could spread.
It comes as Experts in Denmark today debunked fears over the mutant strain, which has only been found in 12 people, saying data released by the authorities made it ‘very difficult’ to work out whether the mink virus did pose a higher risk.
More than 17million mink are being purged and dumped in mass graves in Denmark, following the identification of a strain that could throw a Covid-19 vaccine into jeopardy
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
There is a ‘very low’ risk of a mink coronavirus emerging in the UK, Public Health England officials have said. Pictured above are dead mink in Denmark culled in response to the virus
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.
In a report published today, PHE said there is currently no evidence to suggest any mink in the UK have been infected with coronavirus.
‘No reports of SARS-CoV-2 infection in (mink) species in the UK have been recorded to date,’ they said.
This is most likely because Britain has no fur farms, which were outlawed by the UK Government 20 years ago.
On the farms mink are crammed into squalid, tight conditions. This raises the risk of one catching a virus and then transmitting it to others nearby.
According to PHE, the UK’s biggest risk came from a ‘small number’ of holdings where more than a hundred ferrets are kept.
Covid-19 mutates naturally, and can pick up tricks to evade the immune system if it jumps into other animals because it needs to adjust itself to become able to infect them.
It can then keep these mutations when it jumps back to spread among humans, which mean the strain could pose a greater threat, in theory.
Danish experts said it was possible the strain would be less susceptible to a Covid-19 vaccine, which works by training the body to produce antibodies against the existing strain.
But, even if a mink strain of the virus were to emerge in the UK, PHE officials said it would be unlikely to cause more serious infections.
But they admitted it would be ‘easily transmissible’ because it would carry the same traits allowing the current Covid-19 virus to spread quickly.
‘Current information provided by Danish authorities suggests that mink variants observed in human populations display no discernible differences in terms of ability to cause severe disease compared to SARS-CoV-2 viruses that commonly infect humans,’ they said.
They added: ‘Based on currently available evidence, there is no reason to think this would not be capable of transmitting easily between humans, similar to the human variants.’
Experts today claimed current evidence suggests the ‘Cluster 5’ mink coronavirus will not undermine a Covid-19 vaccine.
‘The data that have been released do not support (the claim) that this is a risk for vaccines not working,’ Jen Lundgren, professor of the infectious disease department at Copenhagen’s Rigshospitalet, told The Local.
Professor Soren Riis, from Aarhus University, added: ‘Based on the data they get, I don’t think you can conclude – and almost not even speculate – that this could be the breeding ground of a new pandemic or that the vaccines won’t work.’
Denmark sparked alarm last week after its State Serum Institute said the ‘Cluster 5’ was less susceptible to antibodies.
Its Prime Minister ordered an emergency lockdown in North Jutland, where the strain was identified, immediately.
In response, many countries have imposed quarantine or no entry orders on people coming to them from Denmark, as authorities there work to establish the spread of the virus.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned yesterday 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.
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