Outbreaks of coronavirus have struck mink farms in Wisconsin and Michigan, but Illinois' shrinking fur industry so far appears to have remained free of the disease, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.
An agency spokeswoman said that as of mid-November, two farms in Wisconsin — the nation's largest mink-producing state by far — have detected the coronavirus in their animals, as have a dozen in Utah and one in Michigan.
For now, though, no Illinois producers have reported finding the virus in their animals.
Mink raised on farms to become fur coats or hats have become a recent source of coronavirus worries. A mutated form of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, was found in some animals in Denmark and prompted the government to order the deaths of the nation's entire population of 17 million mink out of concern the disease could jump to humans and be resistant to vaccines.
Nearly 3 million animals were killed before the cull was suspended amid questions of its legality.
The U.S. mink industry is much smaller than Denmark's — it produced only 2.7 million pelts last year at an average price of $21.90 — and the USDA spokeswoman said no nationwide cull is being contemplated.
"We believe that quarantining affected mink farms in addition to implementing stringent biosecurity measures will succeed in controlling (the virus) at these locations," she said.
Illinois was once a leading producer of mink pelts, with much of the industry centered in McHenry County. But the business dwindled in recent years as global overproduction and softening demand caused prices to drop: The state last year produced only 33,000 pelts, just over 1% of the nation's total.
The state's mink industry tends to make news only when activists break in and release the animals; the last episode appears to have happened in 2013, when two men from Los Angeles freed 2,000 mink from a farm in Morris.
The farmer's name was not included in court records, and the man named in press accounts could not be reached for comment.
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."(c)2020 Chicago Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC