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Coronavirus is striking American mink farms, but Illinois' shrinking fur industry has so far escaped the virus

By John Keilman, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

Other Illinois mink farmers did not respond to the Tribune's requests for comment about their efforts to prevent the coronavirus. Two whose farms are in McHenry County said they're no longer in the business.

Though the government has found no coronavirus cases among Illinois mink, the farms do not receive much oversight. State and federal law do not require them to get a license, and Illinois officials said reporting disease falls to the veterinarians who care for the animals.

Dr. William Sander, a professor of veterinarian medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said mink producers have no motive to keep outbreaks quiet.

"Because of how quick a lot of these big farmers are being affected they'll want to try to utilize state resources, so it's to their benefit to reach out," he said.

Wisconsin agriculture officials said they learned about their outbreak from a veterinarian who works with the two affected farms, which remain under quarantine. Nearly 5,500 mink died from the disease, a small fraction of the state's total population (it produced more than 1 million pelts last year).

Despite the concerns in Denmark over animal-to-human transmission, the USDA said there is no evidence that has happened in the U.S., though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is doing a study on that subject.

 

The CDC last week published a study from Denmark that concluded the disease, once introduced by a human worker, can spread quickly with mink showing few outward signs of the illness.

While the researchers found no sign of spread outside the farms, they reported that "there appears to be some risk of virus transmission to persons working with infected mink as well as for their contacts and thus, indirectly, for the public."

Fur Commission USA, the mink industry's trade group, pointed to a statement in which it downplayed the possible risks to human health and anticipated that a vaccine for mink would be available by the spring, before the next "crop" of baby mink, or kits, is due.

A spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, however, said the possibility of viruses that can jump from animals to people will remain a concern wherever industrial farming is practiced.

"It just poses an enormous risk to the workers, to the communities beyond these operations," she said. "The pandemic has driven home to us that it doesn't take long for a problem that starts in one of these small communities to affect the rest of the world. Viewed from a public health standpoint alone, this is very serious and should cause us to rethink our use of animals for products where you really don't need them."

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