As the new coronavirus continues to infect and kill humans around the world, there are now growing fears about the mutation of the deadly virus in animals.
Authorities in Denmark announced this week that a mutated strain of the virus was found on five mink farms that infected 12 people in August and September, prompting an order by the prime minister to kill the country’s entire 17-million-large mink population and the enforcement of strict lockdown measures in the north of the country.
COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is categorized as a zoonotic disease that is passed from animals to humans.
Scientists believe the virus originated from bats, but there is still ongoing research about the origins of the novel coronavirus, first detected in China in December last year.
Since the start of the pandemic, there have been reports of animals – pet cats and dogs, as well as zoo lions and tigers – getting infected with the coronavirus.
Mutations, which are small changes in the genetic material of the virus, are common during outbreaks.
In Denmark, a total of 214 people have been infected with mink variants of the virus since June, according to the country’s State Serum Institute.
Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen raised alarm on Wednesday, describing the latest development as “very, very serious” and a potential risk to the efficacy of future vaccines.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said it is working closely with Danish authorities on mink farms and has been following genetic changes in the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic through a dedicated COVID-19 virology working group.
“We are always concerned when a virus has gone from humans to animals, and back to humans. Each time this happens, it can change more. So we want to stop this back and forth and the changes that can result,” the WHO told Global News in a statement on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the outbreak has prompted the United Kingdom to remove Denmark from its travel corridor list, requiring all people travelling from the country to the U.K. to self-isolate for 14 days.
However, experts are urging authorities not to jump to any conclusions and called for more research and evidence.
“If the virus gets into a new population such as the mink and it spreads a lot within these animals, then we need to keep a very close eye on that,” Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) told Global News.
“The last thing anybody needs is a new strain of this virus passing around the world.”
Levon Abrahamyan, a virologist at the University of Montreal, said he was “very skeptical” about the reports of the mutated virus passing on to humans and questioned its potential impact on vaccine efficacy.
“(Minks) are susceptible to this infection, but saying that they can cause a new pandemic or that there is a possibility of massive transmission from minks to humans, I believe it’s very premature and not confirmed and supported by science,” he added.
The new coronavirus – called Sars-CoV-2 – has already killed more than 1.2 million people worldwide amid the 48 million-plus cases, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.
Denmark has reported at least 738 virus-related deaths and more than 53,000 cases.
Coronavirus outbreaks on mink farms have also previously been reported in Spain and Netherlands, prompting authorities to cull the mammals to stop the spread of COVID-19.
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