Six key questions about the Danish mink outbreak

  • The news that mutated versions of SARS-CoV-2 have been transmitted from minks to humans in Denmark has raised fears that the goalposts for a vaccine may have already shifted. This Update answers six key questions about the new strain of the virus and its possible implications.
  • 1) What’s the background? Denmark is the world’s largest producer of mink pelts and Copenhagen is a global hub for fur trading. There is evidence that SARS-CoV-2 – the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19 – has spread from humans to minks and back again in the country’s mink farms.
  • 2) Has this come out of the blue? Not entirely. Mustelids including mink are known to be susceptible to human viruses and COVID-19 was detected in some Danish animals in June, which led to 11,000 being culled. The virus has also been found in mink farms in the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Italy, and the US.
  • 3) So why the big fuss now? Fears that mink farms could prove to be hotbeds for mutation have been realised. The virus is known to have mutated into five new strains in Denmark, with 214 known instances where these variants have been transmitted back to humans. Research published last week by Danish health officials suggests that one of these variants – known as “Cluster 5”, which was detected in 12 people in September – appears to be more resistant to antibodies than other SARS-CoV-2 viruses in circulation. The upshot is that people who have already had COVID-19 may be vulnerable to reinfection by this new strain, and the vaccines currently under development may not work against it. In a worst-case scenario, Denmark’s top epidemiologist has warned that “the pandemic will restart, this time in Denmark”.
  • 4) Are COVID-19 vaccines doomed to failure? Scientists have stressed that it is too soon to jump to conclusions and that worries about undermining a vaccine are hypothetical so far. The WHO has noted that all viruses change over time and that Cluster 5 appears to be just “modestly” less sensitive to antibodies, but that further studies are needed to understand the impact of the specific mutations identified in Denmark. Note that the variant has been detected retroactively in samples taken from mink farms in the Netherlands in May, but it is not thought to have made the jump to humans in this instance.
  • 5) What’s being done about it? “Cluster 5” has not been detected since September but the government has pulled out all the stops to contain the spread, including imposing a very stringent lockdown in the affected region of North Jutland until 3rd December and mass testing of the region’s 280,000 residents.
  • The government also announced plans last week to cull the entire population of 17 million mink. However, there has been a political outcry after it became clear that the government did not have the jurisdiction to order the cull of heathy animals, and lacked sufficient backing in parliament to push through emergency legislation to that effect. While it is far from our usual area of expertise, we suspect that the full cull will eventually take place; after all, officials appear set on a safety-first approach and calls from some to spare healthy animals do not seem workable given that mink, like humans, can be asymptomatic. That said, it seems likely that it will take the government longer than it hoped to get the required legislation passed, and it will probably have to be more generous in terms of compensation for the affected farmers.
  • 6) What will the economic effect be? Assuming that the new variant doesn’t trigger a fresh global pandemic (!), the economic impact will be confined to Denmark. The direct impact of the closure of the mink industry will be dwarfed by the indirect hit to activity in the North Jutland region.
  • Exports of mink pelts are equivalent to about 0.3% of Danish GDP, which in the context of the wider upheaval this year is less than a rounding error. All else equal, the lockdown in North Jutland will probably reduce national output by about 0.7%-pts in Q4, which means that total GDP may now fall in the region of 1.5-2% q/q in the quarter and by about 4% in 2020. (This assumes that output in North Jutland, which accounts for about 9% of GDP, falls by 25% for one month.) This doesn’t change the fact that the Danish economy has been comparatively resilient this year, but it means that it will end 2020 on the back foot.

David Oxley, Senior Europe Economist, david.oxley@capitaleconomics.com

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