Mink VIRUS Act

Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur/Djurrattsalliansen

Mink on fur farms incubate diseases such as COVID-19 and avian influenza, creating the perfect conditions for new variants to jump to humans—with potentially devastating results. Mink farms risk worsening the current pandemic and ushering in the next one. In addition, taxpayer dollars are being used to prop up mink farms, subsidizing an industry that was already in decline before the COVID-19 pandemic. To eliminate a severe public health threat and end this financial waste, there is a solution that would benefit all:

The bipartisan “Mink: Vectors for Infection Risk in the United States Act” (Mink VIRUS Act) would

  • End the farming of mink for fur, after a one-year phase-out period
  • Establish a USDA grant program to reimburse mink farmers for the full value of their farm

Mink Farms: A Public Health Risk

Mink pose a high risk to humans because their upper respiratory tract is physiologically similar to ours, which means they can become infected by—and potentially transmit to people—some of the same respiratory viruses. Furthermore, mink’s susceptibility to acquiring and spreading both human and animal respiratory viruses render them potentially potent “mixing vessels” for generating novel pandemic viruses.1

“We strongly urge governments to … consider the mounting evidence suggesting that fur farming, particularly mink, be eliminated in the interest of pandemic preparedness.”2

In 2023, infectious disease experts at Imperial College London, in a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that mink farming poses a high risk for future viral pandemics.3 Fur farms house mink in crowded environments that create an ideal setting for pathogens to circulate among and across species.4 Wire cages are packed together and often stacked on top of one another so that waste falls on the animals below. The confined conditions cause caged mink to become highly stressed and thus immuno-compromised, making them even more susceptible to infection. The absence of legal requirements for veterinary care only compounds the problem.

Avian Flu in Mink
A deadly avian influenza virus (H5N1) has infected tens of thousands of mink on multiple fur farm since 2022. During an October 2022 outbreak on a mink farm in Spain, the virus gained at least one mutation that favors mammal-to-mammal spread, allowing it to spread from mink to mink.5 Before this outbreak, the virus spread primarily through contact with infected birds, not between mammals. Scientists sounded the alarm on this H5N1 mink farm outbreak, calling it a “clear mechanism for an H5 pandemic to start” and “a warning bell.”6

H5N1 infections were also detected at multiple mink farms in Finland in 2023,7 demonstrating the risk for this dangerous virus to continue causing outbreaks on mink farms, each time with the possibility of mutating into something transmissible between humans.

COVID-19 in Mink
Mink are highly susceptible to COVID-19, which has infected tens of thousands of mink in the United States8 and millions more abroad. Alarmingly, mink are capable of passing a mutated form of the virus back to humans.9 Mink-to-human transmission of the virus has been reported in at least six countries so far, including the United States. Four people in Michigan were infected with a unique strain of SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus that causes COVID-19) traced back to mink.10 Spillback from mink farms to humans could introduce new variants, undermining the effectiveness of vaccines and jeopardizing efforts to contain the pandemic.11

New outbreaks of COVID-19 continue to emerge on fur farms. Mink on more than 480 known mink fur farms across 12 countries have become infected with COVID-19, including outbreaks in Italy in November 2022 and Poland in January 2023.

Like humans, mink can become infected with COVID-19 without showing symptoms, thus potentially serving as an undetected reservoir of the disease. Escapees from these farms can also transmit the virus to wild populations, potentially fostering reservoirs of the virus off the farms. In December 2020, a wild mink captured near a mink farm in Utah tested positive for a variant of COVID-19 indistinguishable from the virus found in infected mink in a nearby farm—demonstrating the broader dangers posed.12

Mink Farms: Financially Unsustainable

Waste of Taxpayer Dollars
Mink farming is a dying industry, with sales nosediving since well before the pandemic.13 However, taxpayer money is helping to keep this industry afloat. Utah mink farms received approximately $1.5 million in loans from the US government in 2020-21.14 The majority have since been forgiven. The state of Utah also gave mink farmers about $1.8 million “to compensate producers for loss in the market due to COVID-19” and to pay for mink who died during the pandemic. US taxpayers are unwittingly propping up a hazardous industry that US consumers were already rejecting.

An Industry in Decline
According to the USDA, in 2017 there were 236 mink operations in the country that produced about 3.3 million pelts, generating about $120 million. The industry has declined significantly since then as a result of shrinking consumer demand for real fur and a commitment by major fashion brands and retailers such as Nordstrom, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Gucci, Versace, and Giorgio Armani to go fur-free.

According to a July 2023 USDA report, 2022 was the fur industry’s worst year on record, with the value of all mink pelts produced falling to $39.2 million, a 17% reduction from 2020 (previously the worst year). Mink pelt production in 2022 also fell 6% from 2020.15

Cities, states and even countries are now banning fur sales, further closing markets for fur products. In 2019, California became the first state to ban fur sales after similar measures passed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, and West Hollywood. In 2020, Wellesley, Massachusetts, became the first East Coast city to ban fur sales.

Furthermore, there was a nearly 50% decline in the value of fur apparel imported into the United States in 2020 compared to 2019, which was also a low year.16, 17 Global fur auctions, which in 2020 were held virtually in Denmark, Finland, and other fur-producing countries, only managed to sell a small percentage of the pelts on offer.18 The North American Fur Auction, one of the last remaining fur auctions on the continent, lost its lender and declared bankruptcy in October 2019.19

International Response

Globally, the spread of COVID-19 among farmed mink has been even more destructive than in the United States. The virus has been found in captive mink in Canada, Denmark, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Spain, and Sweden.20 European governments ordered the culling of tens of millions of mink amid evidence of the transmission of a mutated form of COVID-19 from mink to farm workers.21 Meanwhile, Finland also ordered the culling of tens of thousands of mink amid the 2023 avian flu outbreak.

Many European countries have already banned, or are in the process of banning, mink farming, including Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland, France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom. The Italian government also allocated money for reimbursing mink farmers.22 The COVID-19 crisis prompted Denmark, Sweden, and Italy to suspend mink fur production, the Netherlands to move up its deadline for ending all mink fur production from 2024 to the end of 2021, and France to announce its intent to ban mink fur production.

In addition, British Columbia, Canada, announced it would phase out mink farming after mink and farm workers tested positive for COVID at multiple BC mink farms. The province is providing financial support and other transition assistance for mink farmers.23 In 2021, Israel became the first country to ban the sale of most fur products. Swift measures taken by governments to address the serious public health risk posed by mink farms are appropriate and proportional to the scale of the crisis.

1. Sun, H., et al. (2021). Mink is a highly susceptible host species to circulating human and avian influenza viruses. Emerging Microbes & Infections, 10(1), 472–480. https://doi.org/10.1080/22221751.2021.1899058

2. Peacock, T. P., & Barclay, W. S. (2023). Mink farming poses risks for future viral pandemics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 120(30). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2303408120

3. Id.

4. Runquist, P. (2021, August). HSVMA statement - fur-farmed animals and risk of disease. The Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. https://www.hsvma.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1179%3Afur_riskofdisease

5. Agüero, M., et al. (2023). Highly pathogenic avian influenza A (H5N1) virus infection in farmed minks, Spain, October 2022. Eurosurveillance, 28(3). https://doi.org/10.2807/1560-7917.es.2023.28.3.2300001

6. Kupferschmidt, K. (2023, January 24). ‘Incredibly concerning’: Bird flu outbreak at Spanish mink farm triggers pandemic fears. Science. https://www.science.org/content/article/incredibly-concerning-bird-flu-outbreak-spanish-mink-farm-triggers-pandemic-fears

7. Lindh, E., et al. (2023). Highly pathogenic avian influenza A(H5N1) virus infection on multiple fur farms in the South and Central Ostrobothnia regions of Finland, July 2023. Euro Surveillance, 28(31). https://doi.org/10.2807/1560-7917.ES.2023.28.31.2300400

8. Coronavirus confirmed in mink at Oregon Fur Farm. RochesterFirst. (2020, November 28). https://www.rochesterfirst.com/news/coronavirus-confirmed-in-mink-at-oregon-fur-farm/

9. Oude Munnink, B. B., et al. (2021). Transmission of SARS-COV-2 on mink farms between humans and mink and back to humans. Science, 371(6525), 172–177. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abe5901

10. Shamus, K. J. (2022, April 20). 4 Michiganders with COVID-19 strain unique to mink were likely 1st US spillover cases. Detroit Free Press. https://www.freep.com/story/news/health/2022/04/17/michigan-covid-cases-tied-to-mink-human-spillover/7338784001/

11. Joint statement on the prioritization of monitoring SARS-COV-2 infection in wildlife and preventing the formation of Animal Reservoirs. World Health Organization. (2022, March 7). https://www.who.int/news/item/07-03-2022-joint-statement-on-the-prioritization-of-monitoring-sars-cov-2-infection-in-wildlife-and-preventing-the-formation-of-animal-reservoirs

12. Garcia de Jesús, E. (2020, December 16). Utah mink is the first wild animal to test positive for coronavirus. Science News. https://www.sciencenews.org/article/covid-19-coronavirus-mink-utah-first-wild-animal-test-positive

13. Mink. National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Agricultural Statistics Board, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (2021, July 22). https://downloads.usda.library.cornell.edu/usda-esmis/files/2227mp65f/8c97mm649/hd76sx594/mink0721.pdf

14. Stevens, T. (2022, February 15). This Utah mink farmer wants to build a legacy. But will his industry survive?. The Salt Lake Tribune. https://www.sltrib.com/news/2022/02/14/this-utah-mink-farmer/

15. Mink. National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Agricultural Statistics Board, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (2021, July 22). https://downloads.usda.library.cornell.edu/usda-esmis/files/2227mp65f/8c97mm649/hd76sx594/mink0721.pdf

16. UN COMTRADE: International Trade Statistics. United Nations - Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (n.d.). https://comtrade.un.org/data

17. USA Trade Online. US Census Bureau. (n.d.). https://usatrade.census.gov/

18. The result of Saga Furs’ auction indicates the seriousness of the pandemic situation. Sagafurs. (2020, July 8). https://www.sagafurs.com/corporate/news/the-result-of-saga-furs-auction-indicates-the-seriousness-of-the-pandemic-situation/

19. Hickman, R. (2019, December 10). Local fur giant goes bankrupt. The Stoughton Courier Hub. https://www.stoughtonnews.com/news/local-fur-giant-goes-bankrupt/article_e7ce1579-221b-56df-aee3-306f7360a548.html

20. Žigaitė, S., et al. (2023). Evaluation of SARS-COV-2 passive surveillance in Lithuanian mink farms, 2020–2021. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 10.https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2023.1181826

21. Denmark to cull up to 17 million mink amid coronavirus fears. BBC News. (2020, November 5). https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54818615

22. Italy votes to ban fur farming and shut down Mink Farms. EcoWatch. (2021, December 27). https://www.ecowatch.com/italy-bans-fur-farming-mink-2656144530.html

23. Mink farming phase out planned in B.C. BC Gov News. (2021, November 5). https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2021AFF0066-002112