COVID-19 outbreak declared at mink farm in B.C.’s Fraser Valley

Officials have declared an outbreak of COVID-19 at a mink farm in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, east of Vancouver, after eight people with connections to the site tested positive for the disease.

Fraser Health said in a written statement Sunday the farm operators and staff who tested positive are isolating, as are their close contacts. Officials did not identify the farm or the community in which it operates.

The statement did not say how the virus was transmitted, but employees are undergoing screening and officials are conducting contact tracing. Animals at the farm are also being tested for the virus.

In the meantime, the mink farm has been ordered to restrict the transport of its animals, products and goods, the statement said.

In its own statement, B.C.’s Agriculture Ministry said the outbreak is limited to one farm in the Fraser Valley. It said samples from some mink are being sent to the National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease in Winnipeg for testing.

The long, ferret-like animals are farmed around the world for their fur, with more than 200 farms across Canada as of 2017.

The outbreak in B.C. follows a nightmarish series of events in Denmark, which has a larger market for furs, after COVID-19 outbreaks at hundreds of its farms.

Last month, the Danish government ordered all farmed mink to be culled after finding that 12 people had been infected by a mutated strain of the virus that causes COVID-19, which passed from humans to mink and back to humans.

The decision led to 17 million animals being destroyed, including healthy ones outside the northern part of the country where infections were found.

Dead mink were tipped into trenches at a military area in western Denmark and covered with two metres of soil. But hundreds began resurfacing near the end of the month, pushed out of the ground by what authorities said was gas from their decomposition. Local newspapers have referred to them as the “zombie mink,” risen from the grave.

Mink breeder Thorbjoern Jepsen holds up a mink, as police forcibly gained access to his mink farm in Gjoel, Denmark on Oct. 9. (Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix/Associated Press)

According to the World Health Organization, 214 human cases of COVID-19 have been identified in Denmark since June that have SARS-CoV-2 variants associated with farmed minks.  

The WHO bulletin says the minks were infected following exposure to infected humans. “Minks can act as a reservoir of SARS-CoV-2, passing the virus between them, and pose a risk for virus spill-over from mink to humans,” said the report dated Nov. 6.

It identified six countries that had reported SARS-CoV-2 in farmed minks, including Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Italy and the United States.

Canadian mink farms 

In Canada, the highest numbers of fur farms are located in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, according to the Canada Mink Breeders Association.

The association says 1.7 million farmed mink were produced in Canada in 2018, mainly in rural communities, and the fur industry as a whole employs more than 60,000 Canadians. 

Mink farms in British Columbia are concentrated in the Fraser Valley, according to a 2014 B.C. Agriculture Ministry briefing.

According to the statement from Fraser Health, WorkSafeBC has inspected the site and are working with the farm on its COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

WorkSafeBC is also reaching out to other mink farms in B.C. to discuss their COVID-19 safety plans and measures to prevent transmission.

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