Dead mink on a Taylor County farm have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, according to state officials.
It is the first documented infection within Wisconsin’s mink industry, according to state public health and agriculture officials.
The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection said Thursday that it has placed the unnamed farm under quarantine and is working with local, state and federal authorities to investigate the outbreak and assist with carcass disposal and cleaning.
DATCP spokesman Kevin Hoffman said “several hundred” animals have been infected.
Hoffman said DATCP learned of the outbreak Oct. 2 after a veterinarian who works with the farm reported an increase in deaths. The Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory found evidence of infection in nine animals, and the National Veterinary Services Laboratories confirmed those results Wednesday.
After a 350-year-old Canadian fur trading company went bankrupt just as Wisconsin mink farmers were beginning their harvest, a Finnish competitor is breathing new life into the state’s oldest industry.
Wisconsin is the second state with confirmed coronavirus infection at a mink farm. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in August confirmed outbreaks at two Utah ranches. There have also been outbreaks at farms in the Netherlands, Denmark and Spain.
According to state officials, there is currently no evidence that animals, including mink, play a significant role in spreading the virus to humans. However, people infected with the virus can spread it to mink and other animals.
Dr. John Easley, a Sheboygan County veterinarian and mink industry consultant, said the outbreak is isolated but cautioned farmers to be “exceedingly careful” to protect both animals and humans.
“We don’t feel it’s of high-level concern, but it certainly is a concern,” Easley said of the potential for mink-to-human transmission. “We just don’t know enough about the virus at this point.”
Wisconsin, which had 67 mink farms as of the last USDA census, is the nation’s largest mink producer, supplying nearly half of the roughly 3 million U.S. pelts sold in 2018.
DATCP estimates the state’s fur exports that year were worth nearly $227 million.
Hoffman said DATCP is not requiring testing of animals or workers at any other farms. The agency does not license mink farms and does not have data on how many are currently in operation.
In June, state officials circulated guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control to veterinarians who work with Wisconsin’s mink ranches.
According to the document, research has shown ferrets, a close relative of mink, can catch and spread the virus in laboratory settings. It notes a lack of evidence that animals “play a significant role in spreading the virus to humans,” though it cautions that more study is needed.
In addition to mink, the USDA has confirmed coronavirus infections in cats, dogs, a tiger and a lion.
Animal rights activists say the outbreaks indicate confined animal breeding is a public health issue and want to see more controls on the largely unregulated domestic fur industry. They point to reports that the Danish government said mink-to-human transmission is “plausible.”
“Not only is fur production cruel and an environmental nightmare, but it’s now clear that it’s a major risk to public health, as well,” said PJ Smith, director of fashion policy for the Humane Society of the United States. “Millions of mink on fur farms in the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, and now Utah and Wisconsin, have been killed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and there’s increasing evidence that mink can transmit the virus to humans.”
People suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 are encouraged to avoid contact with pets and other animals while they are completing their home isolation to protect the animals from infection.