(385) 401-4301 info@uarc.io PO Box 3451 Salt Lake City, UT 84110

Below is an open letter UARC sent to Dr. Angela Dunn, State Epidemiologist for the Utah Department of Health. We will reprint any reply UARC receives from Dr. Dunn or her designee on this page.

December 4, 2020

Angela C. Dunn, MD, MPH
State Epidemiologist
Utah Department of Health
288 North 1460 West
Salt Lake City, UT 84116

Sent via Email

Dear Dr. Dunn:

I am writing on behalf of Utah Animal Rights Coalition (UARC) and our tens of thousands of members and supporters to ask that you carefully evaluate the growing evidence that industrial mink farming poses a serious threat to COVID-19 mitigation and imminent vaccination efforts. After looking at the available evidence, if you conclude that the mink farms are reservoirs of SARS-CoV-2, and are also potential sources of mutation for the virus, we ask that you state your concerns publicly and encourage the Governor and the Utah State Legislature to take immediate steps to stop the breeding of animals on Utah mink farms before breeding season commences in February.

If you are a subscriber to the International Society for Infectious Diseases’ reporting system Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED), you have probably already noticed that European public health professionals have already been paying careful attention to the role that their mink farms are playing in worsening the COVID-19 pandemic and have been sounding the alarm for the past few months. Many European nations have already undertaken extraordinary measures, including widespread culling, to address the threat. In contrast, authorities within the United States, including Utah, appear to be sitting on their hands, or, even worse, spreading untruthful statements to downplay the seriousness of the crisis. This must change.

On Thursday, December 10, UARC has a hearing before the State Records Committee as it seeks the public release of records revealing the scope of the crisis in our state. I respectfully ask for your public support for more transparency and meaningful action to address this problem before this hearing.

SARS-CoV-2 first identified on Dutch mink fur farms

Following unusual widespread mortality events on two different mink farms in the Netherlands, SARS-CoV-2 infections were first identified in mink by researchers in April 2020.1Oreshkova N, Molenaar RJ, Vreman S, et al. SARS-CoV-2 infection in farmed minks, the Netherlands, April and May 2020. Euro Surveill. 2020;25(23):2001005. doi:10.2807/1560-7917.ES.2020.25.23.2001005. Available at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32553059/. It is believed that in both cases, infected workers on these operations first gave the virus to the mink, who then spread it to one another. The researchers also found evidence that seven feral cats who lived near these two mink farms had also been recently infected. Mink appear to transmit SARS-CoV-2 much the same way humans do, via respiratory droplets, and when one mink is infected, it can quickly and easily spread throughout the whole farm. Mink on fur farms are typically confined in tiny shoebox-sized wire cages, in close quarters with one another, with one shed containing hundreds, if not thousands, of mink. There is no social distancing for these cruelly confined animals.

By August, more than one-third of all Dutch mink farms had active COVID-19 outbreaks. Dutch public health officials soon concluded that “[i]t is undesirable that the virus continues to circulate on mink farms as there is a risk that, in the long term, this will lead to infections – via employees – of people outside the mink farm.”2U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service. Dutch mink industry to close in 2021 due to coronavirus. Report Number NL2020-0042 dated Sep. 2, 2020. Available at https://apps.fas.usda.gov/newgainapi/api/Report/DownloadReportByFileName?fileName=Dutch%20Mink%20Industry%20to%20Close%20in%202021%20Due%20to%20Coronavirus%20_The%20Hague_Netherlands_08-28-2020. The Dutch government ordered the industry be shuttered at the end of the next pelting season, which begins in November 2020 but can run as late as March 2021. Prior to this order, the Netherlands had been the world’s fourth largest mink producing country, with 130 active farms and annual exports valued at $101 million.3Reuters. Netherlands to close mink farms after coronavirus outbreaks. Aug. 27, 2020. Available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-netherlands/netherlands-to-close-mink-farms-after-coronavirus-outbreaks-idUSKBN25N2W2.

Danish fur farm outbreaks and identified viral mutation

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Danish fur industry was the largest producer of mink pelts in the world, with an estimated 40% of the world’s market share.4Olsen, Jan M. North Denmark in lockdown over mutated virus in mink farms. Associated Press. Nov. 6, 2020. Available at https://apnews.com/article/mutated-virus-mink-farm-denmark-lockdown-98ede7f921eb6ef3b312e53743fc3edb. But similar to the experience in the Netherlands, the fur industry has been ravaged by COVID-19, with at least 216 out of 1,139 farms now coping with outbreaks. Most troublingly, using genomic sequencing, researchers have now identified several mutant strains of SARS-CoV-2 that arose on Danish mink farms, including one that has now resulted in an outbreak in the general human population, with more than 200 identified cases of human infection of this mutated virus.5Murphy, Simon and Beaumont, Peter. Travel to UK from Denmark banned amid worries over COVID in mink. The Guardian. Nov. 7, 2020. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/06/coronavirus-mutation-danish-mink-spreads-to-214-people. More than a quarter million Danes in the region of Denmark where this mutant strain arose have now gone into lockdowns as a result of this new mutated virus, and the UK has banned all travel with Denmark.

This disease cluster has been called “cluster 5,” and is the result of a “mink variant strain” of the virus. The mutation has led to changes in the virus’s “spike protein,” a kind of “identification marker” on the surface of the virus that plays a crucial role in our body’s immune response.6Baylis, Matthew. The COVID-carrying Danish mink are a warning sign – but is anyone heeding it? The Guardian. Nov. 10, 2020. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/nov/10/the-covid-carrying-danish-mink-are-a-warning-sign-but-is-anyone-heeding-it. This means that antibodies generated in humans by prior COVID-19 infections will likely “miss” this new variant strain. Additionally, the viral spike protein is the target of most COVID-19 vaccines currently in development, including the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that may be nearing market approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If new mink variant strains continue to evolve and spread in the community, this will undermine the billions of dollars and months of intensive research and development for a COVID-19 vaccine, and will likely lead to additional lockdowns and social distancing requirements.

Public health researchers and authorities across the globe are profoundly alarmed by this development. The WHO stated on November 6, 2020:

Minks were infected following exposure from 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. People can then transmit this virus within the human population. Additionally, spill-back (human to mink transmission) can occur. It remains a concern when any animal virus spills in to the human population, or when an animal population could contribute to amplifying and spreading a virus affecting humans. As viruses move between human and animal populations, genetic modifications in the virus can occur. These changes can be identified through whole genome sequencing, and when found, experiments can study the possible implications of these changes on the disease in humans.

— World Health Organization. SARS-CoV-2 mink-associated variant strain – Denmark. Nov. 6, 2020. Available at https://www.who.int/csr/don/06-november-2020-mink-associated-sars-cov2-denmark/en/.

Danish authorities immediately recognized the gravity of the threat, with the state epidemiologist stating there is a potential that we will have “a pandemic that will start all over again, starting from Denmark.” Authorities have already issued an order to cull all of the mink and shut down their large mink farming industry. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen gave an emergency press conference about the situation, where he stated:

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. 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.

— Dyer O. Covid-19: Denmark to kill 17 million minks over mutation that could undermine vaccine effort. BMJ. 2020;371:m4338. Published 2020 Nov 9. doi:10.1136/bmj.m4338. 

The fur farming industry has itself admitted the severity of the crisis. At the September 28, 2020 annual convention of Fur Commission USA, Dr. John Easley, DVM, Director of Research, stated:

[Researchers are] extremely confident that they’ve been able to demonstrate that [COVID-19] was brought on to farms by humans, the virus changed in the mink, and that changed virus was then transmitted back to people, and the people that got infected, transmitted that virus to other people. This is new information that is out now, so that is extremely important to the industry. It shows that mink can potentially be a reservoir for the virus, for the human population.

— Dr. John Easley, DVM, Director of Research for Fur Commission USA. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9dvnHcP2n0.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has issued a Rapid Risk Assessment, aimed at offering information and guidance to EU member states about how to detect and control SARS-CoV-2 variants related to mink.7European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Detection of new SARS-CoV-2 variants related to mink. Nov. 12, 2020. Available at https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/sites/default/files/documents/RRA-SARS-CoV-2-in-mink-12-nov-2020.pdf. This report notes that mink variants of the virus “are able to circulate rapidly in mink farms and the human communities close to the farms.” Following the developments in Denmark, Irish public health authorities did not even wait for a COVID-19 outbreak on their farms. On November 19, 2020 it was reported that Dr. Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer for Ireland, had asked the Irish Department of Agriculture to immediately cull all 120,000 mink on Irish fur farms “as a matter of urgency.”8O’Brien, Tim. Department in talks with mink farms over plan to cull 120,000 animals. The Irish Times. Nov. 19, 2020. Available at https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/department-in-talks-with-mink-farms-over-plan-to-cull-120-000-animals-1.4413660.

And yet, in Utah, it appears we are failing to meaningfully respond at all. The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) refuses to even identify the counties where these outbreaks have occurred, threatening the health of these communities. Among other steps, the ECDC urges that public health authorities implement “a systematic approach to testing and sequencing, particularly in mink farm workers and nearby communities.” It remains unclear whether the state of Utah has implemented any systematic disease surveillance or testing related to the COVID-19 outbreaks on Utah’s many fur farms. The state of Utah appears determined to shroud the state’s response, or lack thereof, in secrecy.

If the existing mutated mink variant strain spreads further, or if we develop our own mutant strain on Utah mink farms, it very well may extinguish the promising hopes of a successful COVID-19 vaccine rollout in 2021. It may also lead to further lockdowns, disease, and death.

COVID-19 & Utah’s Mink Farming Industry

For many years, Wisconsin and Utah have led the nation as the #1 and #2 leading producers of mink pelts. Even prior to COVID-19, the domestic mink farming industry, has been in a state of precipitous decline. According to USDA figures, for the period of 2014 – 2019, we have seen the following evidence of decline:9USDA Economics, Statistics and Market Information System. Mink. Data derived from reports dated July 2015 & July 2019. Available at https://usda.library.cornell.edu/concern/publications/2227mp65f.

  • The market price of a mink pelt has decreased by 62%.
  • The number of mink killed for their fur has decreased by 28% nationwide. In Utah, the number of mink killed has decreased 42%.
  • Overall industry profits have decreased by 73%.

In August, Clayton Beckstead, mink farmer and spokesperson with the Utah Farm Bureau, told The Washington Post that half of all mink farms in Utah have closed in the past year, with only 38 farms remaining.10Brulliard, Karin. First U.S. cases of coronavirus in minks found at Utah fur farms. The Washington Post. Aug. 17, 2020. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2020/08/17/coronavirus-mink-first-us-cases/. A variety of causes explain the mink industry’s decline, but significant factors include states passing laws that prohibit the sale of fur products and a growing sentiment among consumers that fur products represent unnecessary cruelty to animals.

Utah was the first location of known COVID-19 cases on United States mink farms, with at least two farms having identified outbreaks in August 2020. Almost immediately, UARC recognized the serious risk of this situation, and wrote a letter of concern to the Governor’s Office, which is coordinating the state’s response, and urged him to implement a moratorium on additional breeding on these mink farms. We also launched a public call to action. Hundreds of our members and supporters in Utah subsequently wrote letters of concern to Governor Gary Herbert.

In October, media reports indicated that the problem had worsened, with 10,000 mink dead due to COVID-19 outbreaks and quarantines at nine separate fur farms.11Bekiempis, Victoria. Nearly 10,000 mink dead from COVID-19 outbreak at Utah fur farms. The Guardian. Oct. 11, 2020. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/11/utah-10000-minks-dead-from-coronavirus. Just as in Denmark and the Netherlands, these mink likely contracted the virus from workers before spreading the virus amongst themselves.

The state of Utah’s response to this crisis on our mink farms has, at best, been appallingly inept. At worst, the state, and in particular the UDAF, appears to have been disseminating misleading information to allay legitimate worries about the COVID-19 crisis on mink farms. As recently as November, Dr. Dean Taylor, Utah’s state veterinarian, told Reuters that “everything is still suggesting a one-way travel [viral transmission] from people to the minks.”12Polansek, Tom. Coronavirus kills 15,000 U.S. mink, as Denmark prepares for nationwide cull. Reuters. Nov. 10, 2020. Available at https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-usa-minks/coronavirus-kills-15000-u-s-mink-as-denmark-prepares-for-nationwide-cull-idINL1N2HW1WS This follows an October statement from Dr. Taylor to the Associated Press that “[UDAF] genuinely [doesn’t] feel like there is much of a risk going from the mink to people”13Aleccia, JoNel. Thousands of mink dead in COVID outbreak on Utah farms. Associated Press. Oct. 5, 2020. Available at https://apnews.com/article/virus-outbreak-utah-animals-archive-2863345161adeebb318a3276e35e9501. and other media organizations that the virus only follows a “unidirectional path [from humans to mink].”14Mossburg, C. At least 8,000 mink dead in Utah after contracting COVID-19. CNN. 8 Oct 2020. Available athttps://www.cnn.com/world/live-news/coronavirus-pandemic-10-08-20-intl/h_b1b17737445ac5cb60f54df4b0467c5d In an October 14, 2020, in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune obtained by UARC via a GRAMA request, Dr. Taylor again said that SARS-CoV-2 does not transmit from mink to humans, claiming that “ALL studies so far indicated that the spread was from humans to mink and none indicate the reverse.”15Taylor, Dean. Email communication with The Salt Lake Tribune. Oct. 14, 2020. Obtained via GRAMA.  There is no charitable way to interpret Dr. Taylor’s October 14, 2020 statement. He was simply either uninformed or being deceptive.

Dr. Taylor’s public statements are simply at odds with the overwhelming evidence from news media, government reports, and peer-reviewed scientific literature, which, have all demonstrated that bidirectional zoonotic transmission was and is occurring on mink farms. For example:

  • On May 20, 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Global Agricultural Information Network circulated a public report stating that the Dutch government had conducted genomic sequencing research of its mink farm outbreaks and found that at least one employee was likely infected by a mink.16U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service. Additional control measures for Dutch mink industry in response to COVID-19. Report Number NL2020-0019 dated May 20, 2020. Available at https://apps.fas.usda.gov/newgainapi/api/Report/DownloadReportByFileName?fileName=Additional%20Control%20Measures%20for%20Dutch%20Mink%20Industry%20In%20Response%20to%20COVID-19_The%20Hague_Netherlands_05-19-2020.
  • As early as June 11, 2020, research in the publicly accessible disease surveillance publication Eurosurveillance demonstrated evidence, via genomic sequencing, that SARS-CoV-2 viral particles were present on inhalable dust on Dutch mink farms, and that the disease had been transmitted from mink to humans on these farms.17Oreshkova N, Molenaar RJ, Vreman S, et al. SARS-CoV-2 infection in farmed minks, the Netherlands, April and May 2020. Euro Surveill. 2020;25(23):2001005. doi:10.2807/1560-7917.ES.2020.25.23.2001005. Available at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32553059/.
  • In a September 1, 2020 manuscript partially titled “Jumping back and forth,” European public health researchers investigated COVID-19 outbreaks on 16 mink farms, and found that 68% of the tested mink farm residents, employees, or contacts had evidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection. Using whole genome sequencing, they concluded that there was “widespread circulation” of the virus among the mink, and that there had been “animal to human transmissions of SARS-CoV-2 in mink farms.”18Oude Munnink BB et al. Jumping back and forth: anthropozoonotic and zoonotic transmission of SARS-CoV-2 on mink farms [Internet]. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; 1 Sep 2020. Available from http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/2020.09.01.277152. These researchers’ findings were later published in Science, often considered the most prestigious peer-reviewed scientific publication in the United States.19Oude Munnink BB, Sikkema RS, Nieuwenhuijse DF, et al. Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 on mink farms between humans and mink and back to humans [published online ahead of print, 2020 Nov 10]. Science. 2020;eabe5901. doi:10.1126/science.abe5901. Available at https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/11/09/science.abe5901.
  • The University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) published a news article titled “COVID-19 likely spreading from people to animals – and vice versa” on September 18, 2020, that largely concerned the spread of the disease from mink to humans.20Van Beusekom, Mary. COVID-19 likely spreading from people to animals – and vice versa. CIDRAP News. Sep. 18, 2020. Available at https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/09/covid-19-likely-spreading-people-animals-and-vice-versa. CIDRAP is widely considered a global leader in addressing public health preparedness and emerging infectious disease response. CIDRAP also wrote on November 6, 2020 that when SARS-CoV-2 “is introduced to mink farms from humans, it can spread quickly, and possibly due to biological differences between minks and people, can accumulate mutations, which result in variants with the potential to jump back into humans.”21Schnirring, Lisa. Global COVID-19 total clears 49 million, experts weigh in on mink variant. CIDRAP News. Nov. 6, 2020. Available at https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/11/global-covid-19-total-clears-49-million-experts-weigh-mink-variant?fbclid=IwAR3ibB400Pjpmlwh6MCiLKjK-ehbtW243JBv6ZbwRF9Ihii8XfDfqw78bek.

It must be pointed out that UDAF’s Mission Statement is to “promote the healthy growth of Utah agriculture,” and the bulk of the UDAF’s activities are geared towards protecting the financial interests of the agriculture industry in Utah.[ref]Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. UDAF Mission, Values, and Priorities. Jun. 18, 2019. Available at https://ag.utah.gov/about/. UDAF’s failure to handle this crisis and publicly convey an accurate assessment of the public health risk posed by Utah mink farms may be fundamentally at odds with the UDAF’s mission and ethos. Greater transparency may help provide insight as to why the this agency’s response has been so deficient. UARC is fighting for the public release of records that will shed more light on this matter.

Utahns have been asked to make extraordinary sacrifices during 2020 in order to combat the spread of coronavirus. Social gatherings of all types – including weddings, funerals, and graduation events – have been canceled in order to promote social distancing. Local restaurants and bars have had to greatly reduce their capacity and transform their business plan to prioritize carry out and delivery. Concert and sporting venues have been all but shuttered. Parents have had to grapple with the difficulty of remote learning for their school-age children. Our organization canceled SLC VegFest, our annual flagship festival in downtown Salt Lake City that attracts thousands of attendees. Many people have lost their jobs or livelihoods.

It is simply unfair for the state to ask millions of Utahns to radically re-arrange their lives but then do nothing to meaningfully address the threat emanating from a few dozen mink farms in Utah where we know the virus is being transmitted and could be mutating. It is unacceptable that this one small and dying industry might jeopardize the sacrifices the rest of us have all made and diminish the effectiveness of the state’s imminent vaccination efforts.

It’s long past time that our elected officials and leaders prioritize the public health of all Utahns, not the financial well-being of a handful of politically well-connected private industries. Your leadership can help turn the tide. Please speak out against the mink farming industry in Utah and urge state authorities to intervene to stop breeding on Utah mink farms before it is too late. Your public comments in advance of UARC’s December 10 hearing before the records committee would be enormously impactful.

Thank you for your time and careful consideration. If I may be of assistance, please reach out using the contact information provided below. Email is preferred.

Sincerely,

Jeremy Beckham, MPA, MPH
Executive Director
Utah Animal Rights Coalition
385-401-4301
jeremy@uarc.io

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