The Coronavirus Kills Mink. They Could Get a Vaccine.


At least two American companies and Russian researchers are working on coronavirus vaccines against mink. The animals became sick and died in large numbers from the virus, which they also returned to humans in mutated form.

Zoetis, a large New Jersey veterinary drug company with annual sales of more than $ 6 billion in 2019, and Medgene Labs, a small company with about 35 employees in South Dakota, are both testing vaccines in mink. They apply for a license for their products from the US Department of Agriculture.

Both companies said their vaccine technologies are generally similar to Novavax’s for a human vaccine that is in late-stage trials. In this system, insect cells produce the coronavirus spike protein, which is then bound to a harmless virus that invades the body’s cells and trains the immune system to be prepared for reality.

Mink is known to have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the pandemic virus, in half a dozen countries around the world.

All members of the weasel family are susceptible to infection and to developing some symptoms and passing the virus on, at least to others of their species. This is in part due to the proteins on the surfaces of their cells and the structure of their respiratory systems. Scientists don’t know why minks in particular seem to get very sick, but the overcrowded conditions in farms on farms can cause them to be exposed to higher levels of virus.

The most serious outbreak was in Denmark, where mink breeding was suspended until at least 2022 due to mutations in the virus that appeared in infected mink.

At the end of last autumn Denmark ordered the slaughter of up to 17 million animals. Most of the dead minks were not allowed to be skinned for the fur trade. In average years the country sells up to 17 million pelts, but last year’s decision also killed its breeding population and there are fears that the industry will not recover.

In the United States, on the other hand, according to an industry group, Fur Commission USA, around 275 mostly small mink farms produce around three million skins annually. Thousands of U.S. minks have been infected and died, but states have been addressing the quarantine issue on some farms. The Ministry of Agriculture did not get involved and there was no order to kill mink populations like in Denmark.

Still, mink infections pose a public health threat in the United States. At least two minks that have escaped from farms have tested positive. And a wild mink tested positive. Scientists fear that if the virus spreads to wilder mink or other animals, it could establish itself in natural populations and create a reservoir from which it could possibly emerge in a mutated form to re-infect humans at another time.

So far, the mutations observed in Danish mink have not turned out to be a problem. But mutations in the virus in infected people have produced at least two variants that are more infectious. If a second species, the mink, serves as another breeding ground for the virus, the likelihood of mutation and escape into other animals increases. Consequently, a mink vaccine could have value beyond the industry. And while the Department of Agriculture is not currently considering applications for vaccines for cats and dogs, this is one option companies are considering.

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Answers to your vaccine questions

If I live in the US, when can I get the vaccine?

While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary from state to state, most doctors and residents of long-term care facilities will come first. If you want to understand how this decision is made, this article will help.

When can I get back to normal life after the vaccination?

Life will only get back to normal once society as a whole receives adequate protection against the coronavirus. Once countries have approved a vaccine, they can only vaccinate a few percent of their citizens in the first few months. The unvaccinated majority remain susceptible to infection. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines show robust protection against disease. However, it is also possible that people spread the virus without knowing they are infected because they have mild or no symptoms. Scientists don’t yet know whether the vaccines will also block the transmission of the coronavirus. Even vaccinated people have to wear masks for the time being, avoid the crowds indoors and so on. Once enough people are vaccinated, it becomes very difficult for the coronavirus to find people at risk to become infected. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve this goal, life could approach a normal state in autumn 2021.

Do I still have to wear a mask after the vaccination?

Yeah, but not forever. The two vaccines that may be approved this month clearly protect people from contracting Covid-19. However, the clinical trials that produced these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected with the coronavirus can spread it without experiencing a cough or other symptoms. Researchers will study this question intensively when the vaccines are introduced. In the meantime, self-vaccinated people need to think of themselves as potential spreaders.

Will it hurt What are the side effects?

The vaccine against Pfizer and BioNTech, like other typical vaccines, is delivered as a shot in the arm. The injection is no different from the ones you received before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported serious health problems. However, some of them have experienced short-lived symptoms, including pain and flu-like symptoms that usually last a day. It is possible that people will have to plan to take a day off or go to school after the second shot. While these experiences are not pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system’s encounter with the vaccine and a strong response that ensures lasting immunity.

Will mRNA vaccines change my genes?

No. Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use a genetic molecule to boost the immune system. This molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse with a cell, allowing the molecule to slide inside. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus that can stimulate the immune system. At any given point in time, each of our cells can contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules that they produce to make their own proteins. As soon as these proteins are made, our cells use special enzymes to break down the mRNA. The mRNA molecules that our cells make can only survive a few minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a little longer, so the cells can make extra viral proteins and trigger a stronger immune response. However, the mRNA can last a few days at most before it is destroyed.

Zoetis produces many vaccines for farm animals as well as dogs and cats. For pets, vaccines are made against infectious respiratory diseases in dogs, feline leukemia viruses, and others. The company began work on an animal vaccine in February at the start of the pandemic.

“When we saw the first case of dog infection in Hong Kong, we immediately followed up our normal procedures for developing a vaccine against emerging infectious diseases,” said Mahesh Kumar, senior vice president, Global Biologics, Zoetis. “We have decided to prepare a vaccine for dogs and cats.”

However, upon news of mink infections, the company reached out to the US Department of Agriculture and obtained permission to test the vaccine in mink. In the past, it took several months from testing to approval of other vaccines.

Dr. Kumar pointed out that coronavirus veterinary vaccines are common, for example for avian infectious bronchitis. The disease was first identified in the 1930s and a number of companies make vaccines.

Medgene, an early-stage small company, began work on coronavirus vaccine technology for animals in response to a devastating disease affecting pigs in China in 2013, the epidemic swine diarrhea virus. Mark Luecke, the company’s chief executive officer, said that as soon as the news of the pandemic became known last year and the coronavirus was identified and its genetic sequence described, a team “immediately started work on a vaccine that is for animals is suitable “.

Not knowing which animals would be susceptible, the company began testing it on mice, as it usually does with vaccine developers. When mink was found to be particularly vulnerable, the company contacted people in the mink industry and began testing the virus. Mr Lücke said it should be feasible to produce it this spring pending licensing.

Outside the US, other researchers are also working on mink vaccines. Researchers in Russia and Finland are tracking animal vaccines that could be used on mink and other animals.