A global risk assessment conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the WHO has shown that the overall risk of introduction and spread of SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus that causes COVID-19, from fur farming systems to humans and vulnerable wildlife populations in the WHO European Region, is considered high.
Global Tripartite conducted a risk assessment in light of the large number of fur farms in the region, the wide range of susceptible animal species used in fur farming, and the large number of total cases of COVID-19 recorded among the human population.
WHO European Region – the largest fur producer
It is well documented that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be transmitted between humans and animals. In April 2020, the Netherlands was the first country to report SARS-CoV-2 in cultivated minks. Since then, 9 more countries – 7 of them in the European region – have reported similar findings. The European region includes the largest number of fur-producing countries from all WHO regions.
In November 2020, Denmark reported the detection of a mink-associated variant of SARS-CoV-2 with a combination of mutations not previously observed (called Cluster 5). Preliminary findings suggest a lower ability of antibodies to neutralize the strain, and isolates of the strain variant were shared with selected WHO reference laboratories.
Following these findings, the WHO, in collaboration with the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), conducted a series of meetings with mink fur producing countries, as well as research on SARS-CoV-2 on mink farms in the European region.
The aim of these efforts was to obtain an overview of the fur industry in Europe, gather information on measures taken by countries to prevent and reduce human-to-animal transmission of the virus and inform on the development of single health risk assessment for SARS-CoV-2 in farmed animals.
Large discrepancy in measures adopted throughout the region
A total of 31 of the region’s 53 member states responded to the survey. Of these, 15 reported having a fur industry. The fur industry is dominated by minks, while chinchillas, sables, foxes, rabbits and raccoon dogs make up a smaller proportion of farmed fur animals.
The information gathered highlighted that measures and procedures vary greatly from country to country. Fourteen of the 15 countries with the fur industry have implemented SARS-CoV-2 surveillance systems on fur farms. Nine countries have implemented surveillance systems to detect the virus in people working on farms, and 8 have detected SARS-CoV-2 in mink farm workers.
Nine countries also reported to analyze variations in SARS-CoV-2 virus DNA sequences in animals, while 8 countries analyzed variations in SARS-CoV-2 virus isolate sequences detected in humans. The analyzes identified several combinations of mutations in mink-associated variants in all countries.
The information also showed that both prescribed and recommended biosecurity measures to prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission between animals and humans differ significantly between countries in the region. This includes requirements for the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), access to farms and the movement of animals and workers between farms.
Strict procedures are required
To prevent and reduce further spread between humans and fur animals, the One Health risk assessment provides a number of recommendations, in particular for:
- implement strict sanitary biosecurity measures against SARS-CoV-2;
- ensure and ensure the use of appropriate PPE by agricultural workers and visitors;
- consider testing animals for risk-based SARS-CoV-2 as part of a broader response to COVID-19;
- sampling and testing of susceptible wild species and other animals moving freely in the vicinity of SARS-CoV-2 infected fur farms;
- prevent the entry of agricultural workers with COVID-19 symptoms into the farm premises; performs sequencing of the entire virus genome from human and animal cases and divides virus isolates;
- and strengthen surveillance of COVID-19 at the animal-human interface where sensitive animal reservoirs, including fur farms, have been identified.
About one health
One Health is an approach to designing and implementing programs, policies, laws, and research in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better outcomes in public health. The One Health approach is crucial to address health threats at the animal-human-environment interface, and is particularly important for
- food safety
- control of zoonotic diseases
- laboratory services
- neglected tropical diseases
- environmental health
- antimicrobial resistance.
SARS-CoV-2 in animals used for fur farming: GLEWS + risk assessment (2021)