Denmark says corona mink mutation 'most likely eradicated'

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Copenhagen (AFP)

Two weeks after sounding the alarm about a mutated variant of the new coronavirus in minks that could threaten the effectiveness of a future vaccine, Denmark said Thursday the strain has likely been eradicated.

Noting that no new cases had been detected since September 15, the government said most of the strict restrictions it had imposed on November 5 on seven municipalities in the North Jutland region, home to 280,000 people, would be lifted on Friday.

But Denmark, which had ordered a nationwide cull of all its 15 to 17 million minks, has already killed around two-thirds of stocks and plans to carry out the full cull to avoid any new mutation.

"There have been no new cases of the 'Cluster 5' mink mutation since September 15, which has led the Danish infectious disease authority SSI to conclude that this variant has most likely been eradicated," the health ministry said in a statement.

SSI told AFP no cases had been detected in either people or minks since that date.

While the problem posed by 'Cluster 5' for vaccines was only made public in early November, the variant was detected in minks and 12 people in August and September.

With three times more minks than people, the Scandinavian country is the world's biggest exporter, selling pelts for around 670 million euros ($792 million) annually, and the second-biggest producer behind China.

But the animal has posed a problem in the fight against the new coronavirus. The minks can catch the virus, and also pass it back to humans, and Denmark, like several other countries in Europe, began culling sick minks this summer.

Ireland said Thursday that it was planning a nationwide cull of mink on its commercial farms, which are reported to house around 100,000 animals.

- Political fiasco -

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen had raised the alarm about the mutation in early November, ordering all the country's minks slaughtered.

So far, a total of 10.2 million have been killed.

Her government was forced to admit last week that it had no legal power to order the cull of healthy minks outside the contaminated zones, leading to the resignation on Wednesday of the agriculture minister and dealing a blow to public confidence in the government.

Frederiksen has insisted the cull is "non-negotiable", and her government is now preparing legislation to make it possible -- by banning mink farming until January 1, 2022.

Health authorities said initial studies had shown that future vaccines against Covid-19 could be less effective on the 'Cluster 5' variant.

Some experts have questioned the conclusions drawn by Danish health authorities about the danger posed by the strain, and suspect them of overreacting.

Meanwhile, the strict restrictions in North Jutland -- including shutdowns of public transport, bars and restaurants, and limitations on movement -- had originally been due to stay in place until December 3.

They were now to be lifted early, as of Friday, now that the variant is believed to have disappeared.

Denmark and the United States are among six countries that have reported new coronavirus cases linked to mink farms, the World Health Organization said on November 7.

Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden are the other nations to have discovered SARS-CoV-2 in minks, the agency said in a statement.