By Nikolaj Skydsgaard
COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Denmark announced strict new lockdown rules on Thursday in the north of the country after authorities discovered a mutated coronavirus strain in minks bred in the region, prompting a nationwide cull that will devastate the large pelt industry.
The government said on Wednesday that it would cull all minks - up to 17 million - to prevent human contagion with a mutated coronavirus, which authorities said could be more resistant against future vaccines.
Seven municipalities in northern Denmark, home to most of the country's mink farms, will face restrictions on movement across county lines, while restaurants and bars will be closed, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told a press conference.
Schools will be closed and all public transport will be shut until Dec 3., she said, encouraging inhabitants in the region to stay within their municipality and get tested.
For Denmark's mink pelt industry, which racked up exports of around $800 million last year and employs 4,000 people, the cull could amount to a death knell. The industry association for Danish breeders called the move a "black day for Denmark".
"Of course, we must not be the cause of a new pandemic. We do not know the professional basis for this assessment and risk ... but the government's decision is a disaster for the industry and Denmark," chairman Tage Pedersen said.
At his family-owned mink farm west of the capital Copenhagen, 34-year-old Hans Henrik Jeppesen said he was devastated by the decision.
"This is a very, very sad situation for me and my family," he told Reuters. Jeppesen's 36,000 minks have not been infected, but will be culled and skinned within the next 10 days.
Some lawmakers demanded to see the evidence behind such drastic action.
"We are asking to have it (the evidence) sent over, so we can assess the technical basis," a spokesperson for the Liberal Party told broadcaster TV2 on Wednesday.
Outbreaks at mink farms have persisted in Denmark, Europe's largest producer and exporter of mink furs, despite repeated efforts to cull infected animals since June.
Animal rights groups welcomed the mass cull imposed by the government, and called for a general ban on what they said was an "outdated" industry.
"Although not a ban on fur farming, this move signals the end of suffering for millions of animals confined to small wire cages on Danish fur farms," said Joanna Swabe of Humane Society International.
In a meeting with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control held earlier on Thursday, experts agreed with Denmark's strategy to tackle the situation, state epidemiologist Kare Molbak said.
Hans Kluge, WHO European regional director, said Denmark showed "determination and courage" in the face of a decision to cull its mink population, which has a "huge economic impact".
While no coronavirus has been detected on mink farms in Poland, another major mink pelt producer, authorities in Sweden on Thursday imposed restrictions on mink farms after infections were found.
However, they have not observed the mutation found in neighbouring Denmark.
RISK TO FUTURE VACCINES
In a report published on Wednesday, the State Serum Institute (SSI), the authority dealing with infectious diseases, said laboratory tests showed the new strain had mutations on its so-called spike protein, a part of the virus that invades and infects healthy cells.
That poses a risk to future COVID-19 vaccines, which are based on disabling the spike protein, SSI said.
Ian Jones, a virology professor at Britain's University of Reading, said the virus would be expected to mutate in a new species.
"It must adapt to be able to use mink receptors to enter cells and so will modify the spike protein to enable this to happen efficiently," he explained.
"The danger is that the mutated virus could then spread back into man and evade any vaccine response which would have been designed to the original, non-mutated version of the spike protein, and not the mink-adapted version."
Authorities in Denmark said five cases of the new virus strain had been recorded on mink farms and 12 cases in humans.
James Wood, a professor of veterinary medicine at Cambridge University, cautioned that the true implication of the changes in the spike protein had not yet been fully assessed by scientists.
"It is too early to say that the change will cause either vaccines or immunity to fail," he said.
(Reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard; additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London, Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Johan Ahlander and Colm Fulton in Stockholm and Anna Koper in Warsaw; Editing by Mike Collett-White)