COVID-19 and Public Health
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the dangers and risks of intensive animal agriculture. Fur farming has received international attention due to the hundreds of COVID-19 outbreaks on fur farms in numerous countries around the world, including Canada. The fur farming sector has posed a significant threat to public health during the pandemic for numerous reasons: the rapid transmission of the virus among mink confined in fur farms, animal-to-human and human-to-animal transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the mink-associated variant identified in both mink and humans, and the risk of virus spillover from fur farmed animals to wildlife populations.¹
Addressing the risks posed by fur farming, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Organisation For Animal Health (OIE), and the Word Health Organization (WHO) published a risk assessment for fur farms. The risk assessment identified Canada has having a “very likely” likelihood of introduction and spread of SARS-CoV-2 within fur farms, and a “likely” likelihood of transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from fur farms to susceptible wildlife populations.² Of particular concern, escaped animals are a regular occurrence on fur farms in Canada. This is evident in the Statistics Canada table on fur farming which includes a category of “escaped” animals in their national figures on fur farming.³
Learning from the experience of COVID-19, the United Nations Environment Programme published a scientific report, Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission. The report identifies seven main drivers of zoonotic disease emergence. Two of these drivers are related to the threats posed by industrial fur farming: 1) unsustainable agricultural intensification, and 2) increased use and exploitation of wildlife.⁴
Fur farms in Canada range from housing several hundred to tens of thousands of animals per farm. The fur industry’s intensification of thousands of animals increases the risk of pathogen emergence and transmission in several ways: high antimicrobial use to treat poor animal health that leads to antimicrobial resistance, significant movement of people and machinery between farms, and large quantities of fecal matter that pollutes watersheds and can transmit pathogens to wild and domestic animals.⁵
A report published by the World Health Organization that investigated the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus found that it is likely that the virus originated in bats and was passed to humans through an intermediary animal. Their final assessment concludes that the virus’s “introduction through an intermediate host is considered to be a likely to very likely pathway.”⁶ The report goes on to list mink as one possible candidate animal for an intermediate host, giving weight to one hypothesis proposed that mink farms could be the “cradle of COVID-19”.⁷
¹Sharun, K., Tiwari, R., Natesan, S., & Dhama, K. (2020) SARS-CoV-2 infection in farmed minks, associated zoonotic concerns, and importance of the One Health approach during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Veterinary Quarterly, 41(1), 50-60.
²World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, & World Organisation for Animal Health. (2020, January 20). SARS-CoV-2 in animals used for fur farming: GLEWS+ risk assessment.
³Statistics Canada. Supply and disposition of mink and fox on fur farms.
⁴United Nations Environment Programme and International Livestock Research Institute. (2020). Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission.
⁵Jones, B. A., Grace, D., Kock, R., Alonso, S., Rushton, J., Said, M. Y., McKeever, D., Mutua, F., Young, J., McDermott, J., & Pfeiffer, D. U. (2013) Zoonosis emergence linked to agricultural intensification and environmental change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(21,) 8399-8404.
⁶World Health Organization. (2021, February 10). WHO-convened global study of origins of SARS-CoV-2: China Part.
⁷Faure, Y. & Sciama, Y. (2021, January 14). Mounting evidence suggests mink farms in China could be the cradle of Covid-19. Reporterre.