Minks are seen at a farm in Gjol, northern Denmark on October 9, 2020.
HENNING BAGGER | Ritzau Scanpix | AFP via Getty Images
LONDON — The World Health Organization said on Friday it would review biosecurity measures across the globe after Danish health authorities found a mutated form of the coronavirus present in the country’s mink farms.
The detection of the mutated virus among minks has raised questions about the effectiveness of a future Covid-19 vaccine.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said earlier this week that the government planned to cull all 15 million minks in Danish farms to try to reduce the risk of the animals re-transmitting the new strain of the coronavirus to humans.
Frederiksen described the situation as “very, very serious,” warning the mutated virus could have “devastating consequences” worldwide.
When asked about reports of the mutated virus among minks during a news briefing on Friday, Dr. Maria van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, said: “There is always a concern when you have a circulation and transmission from humans to animals and then animals to humans.”
“We’ve been seeing this for a number of months now and what we understand is the minks have been infected with contact from humans and it circulates in the mink and then it can pass back to humans,” van Kerkhove said from WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
“Each one of these changes, each one of these mutations, whether they are identified in mink or they are identified in humans, need to be evaluated because we need to determine the importance of each of these. And if any of these changes means that the virus behaves differently,” van Kerkhove said.
“There’s a proper way to do that because there need to be studies to evaluate if there’s any changes in transmissibility or severity and if there are any implications for diagnostics for vaccines and therapeutics,” she continued.
“In this situation, there is a suggestion that some of these mutations may have some implications, but we need to do the proper studies to evaluate this and that is ongoing right now.”
Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the World Health Organization’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, speaks during a press conference following an emergency committee meeting over the new coronavirus in Geneva on Jan. 22, 2020.
Pierre Albouy | AFP | Getty Images
The United Nations health agency said it was working with regional offices in Europe, the Western Pacific, and the Americas because there are many mink farms present in countries across the globe.
We are “looking at the biosecurity on the mink farms, looking at the surveillance that’s happening in these mink farms and to support countries in taking the right steps to prevent the virus to continue to circulate in minks — and to prevent spillover events from happening,” van Kerkhove said.
To date, more than 48.8 million people have contracted the coronavirus worldwide, with 1.23 million related deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Drugmakers and research centers are scrambling to deliver a safe and effective vaccine in an attempt to bring an end to the coronavirus pandemic.
Last month, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.’s leading expert on infectious disease, said he believed it would only be a matter of weeks before the findings of a potential Covid vaccine will be known.
The reports of a mutated coronavirus among the mink population in Denmark, one of the world’s main mink fur exporters, has triggered concern about the effectiveness of a potential vaccine.
“I think it is very important to recognize that these types of things happen all of the time. This is a global pandemic and many millions (of people) have been infected and many millions of animals have been exposed,” Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, said during the same briefing.
“There is always a potential that the virus can then come back to humans and that is a concern because mammal species like mink are very good hosts in a sense and the virus can evolve within those species especially if there are large numbers packed closely together,” Ryan said.
Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen addresses a press conference on the novel coronavirus COVID-19 at the State Department in Copenhagen, Denmark on April 6, 2020.
PHILIP DAVALI | Ritzau Scanpix | AFP via Getty Images
“We have to look at that viral evolution, we have to create the biosecurity around farms like that so that there is not that contact back with human populations. And we have to address all of those issues. But, right now, the evidence that we have does not suggest that this variant is in any way different in the way it behaves,” he added.
Ryan said the WHO would have to evaluate whether the mutation of the virus among the mink population is different in terms of its clinical severity or whether there is any implication for diagnostics or vaccines. “But we are a long, long way away from making any determination of that kind,” he said.
Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist, said it would be unwise to jump to any conclusions following reports of the mutated virus found among mink farms in Denmark.
“I think that we need to wait and see what the implications are, but I don’t think we should come to any conclusions about whether this particular mutation is going to impact vaccine efficacy or not,” Swaminathan said.
“We don’t have any evidence at the moment that it would. But we will update you as we get more information.”