It’s not just mink: Foxes and raccoon dogs on fur farms ‘may infect humans with coronaviruses’, scientists warn

Exclusive: The whole industry has the potential to act as a virus factory, say animal-welfare activists

Jane Dalton
Thursday 26 November 2020 17:54 GMT
Farming foxes and raccoon dogs distressed as they are kept in small cages

Other animals reared for their fur – such as foxes and raccoon dogs – can catch coronaviruses and pass it to humans, scientists have warned, after millions of mink across Europe were culled over fears they could spread Covid-19.

The World Organisation for Animal Health has advised countries to monitor for infection “susceptible animals, such as mink and racoon dogs”, as well as humans in close contact with them.

A scientific paper this summer warned that raccoon dogs “are susceptible to and efficiently transmit” Covid-19 and “may serve as intermediate host” for it – meaning they may transmit Covid-19 to people.

It prompted animal-protection lobbyists to claim “all fur farming has the potential to act as a virus factory”.

A scientific paper in 2004 reported that foxes in a wildlife market in Guanzhou, China, were found to have been infected with Sars-CoV, which causes Sars, another type of coronavirus.

It’s estimated that more than 32 million foxes and raccoon dogs are held in fur farms around the world, their pelts mostly destined for markets in Asia.

An outbreak of coronavirus in mink in Denmark earlier this month prompted the country to begin a cull of all 17 million of the animals on its fur farms. Some were suffering a mutated form of the virus, which infected more than 200 people.

Governments in four other countries – Spain, Greece, the Netherlands and Ireland – have also issued orders or advice to cull their farmed mink populations.

Experts are worried that the new human coronavirus vaccines may not be effective against mutated strains.

The British Fur Trade Association insists that species other than mink, “such as fox and wild fur” are not affected by the virus. It says fur farms worldwide have put in place extensive biosecurity measures after the mink outbreaks.

But the paper by 17 scientists stated that raccoon dogs “were suspected as potential intermediate host for both SARS-CoV6 and SARS-CoV2”. The authors wrote: “Rapid, high-level virus shedding, in combination with minor clinical signs and pathohistological changes… highlight the role of raccoon dogs as a potential intermediate host.  

“The results are highly relevant for control strategies and emphasise the risk that raccoon dogs may represent a potential SARS-CoV-2 reservoir.”  

Raccoon dogs in a wildlife market in Shenzhen, China, were also found to have been infected with Sars.

Christian Drosten, director the Institute of Virology at the Charité Hospital in Berlin, has even suggested fur-farm raccoon dogs, rather than pangolins, were the source of Covid-19, telling The Guardian earlier this year: “Raccoon dogs are a massive industry in China, where they are bred on farms and caught in the wild for their fur. If somebody gave me a few hundred thousand bucks and free access to China to find the source of the virus, I would look in places where raccoon dogs are bred.”

Most zoonotic diseases in modern times, from the 1918 flu pandemic onwards, have had animal origins, with viruses infecting humans emerging from birds, farmed animals and wild hunted animals.

The stress of being caged literally drives animals mad and also suppresses their immunity, making them especially susceptible to disease, scientists say.

Globally, 94 million animals are farmed for their fur, including 61 million mink, 20.1 million foxes and 12.4 million raccoon dogs, according to figures from Humane Society International, with China the biggest single fur-producing country.

The UK has banned fur farming but still imports of real fur. The value of imports rose from about £55m in 2016 to £70m-£75m in the following two years, but then last year fell back to £55.9m last year, according to HMRC figures.

Raccoon dogs, which originate in Asia and are distant cousins of foxes, are a separate species from raccoons, natives of America.

Claire Bass, executive director of Humane Society International (HSI) who has visited fur farms, said: “Fox and raccoon dogs who are reared for fur in their millions across Europe, China and north America can also become infected with SARS-CoV-related viruses, and considering the appalling conditions in which these animals are forced to live, it's little wonder that fur farms have the potential to act like virus factories.  

“If we learn anything from the tragic scenes of mink culls, it must be that we cannot continue to exploit and push animals beyond the limit of their endurance, not only causing them immense suffering but also putting human lives at risk, all for a frivolous fur fashion item that nobody needs.”

HSI says the fur trade has been “in freefall” for several years, with average pelt prices at auction houses dropping and growing numbers of financial institutions, including Standard Chartered and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, adopting policies not to invest in the trade.

Ms Bass said the fact that the virus had spread and mutated within stressed mink populations was “another major nail in the coffin” of the fur industry, and accused the UK of being complicit in the cruelty by importing fur.

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Fur farming has rightly been banned in this country for nearly 20 years. Once our future relationship with the EU has been established, there will be an opportunity for the government to consider further steps it could take in relation to fur sales.

“We have also co-created the leaders’ pledge for nature, which includes a commitment to working globally to address the links between how we treat our planet and the emergence of infectious diseases.”

The Independent has asked the International Fur Federation to comment. A spokesperson from the British Fur Trade Association said: “Animal-rights activists are clearly using recent events to push their own agendas. More research is needed to establish the intermediate host of Covid-19. Until such knowledge emerges, anything else is baseless speculation, since a broad range of animals are in the scope. 

“Likewise, a lot of animals are susceptible to Covid-19. Vaccines for fur-farmed species are ready now, and vaccine testing will be undertaken in cooperation with national authorities.”

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