Denmark has discovered a new mutated strain of the coronavirus from mink farms in the north of the country, which authorities say could escape future COVID-19 vaccines.
To prevent human contagion, the government has ordered the slaughter of the entire 17 million mink population in Denmark, one of the largest producers of mink skins in the world.
Here is what we know about the Danish strain:
WHAT STRAINS OF MINK ARE AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
Denmark has identified five variants of the virus from mink, but only one – known as Cluster 5 – has shown “reduced susceptibility” to antibodies, according to Denmark’s State Serum Institute (SSI), which deals with Infectious diseases.
State epidemiologist Kare Molbak said Group 5 was no more dangerous than other strains or more infectious.
Clusters 2, 3 and 4 are still being studied for reduced sensitivity, which has already been excluded in the variant of cluster 1.
How far has the mutated virus spread?
Group 5 was found in five mink farms in northern Denmark and 12 cases were recorded in humans in the same Danish region in August and September, but none have been recorded since then, according to SSI.
“We can just hope that it no longer exists to the same extent,” Molbak said at a press conference Thursday, adding that nothing could be said for sure.
Cluster 5 represents about 5% of the strains found in northern Denmark, but it did not appear outside the country and it was not immediately clear why it appeared in Denmark.
WHAT IS THE IMPLICATIONS FOR FUTURE VACCINES?
It is too early to say what impact, if any, the cluster 5 mutation could have on the effectiveness of potential vaccines, Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organization, said on Friday.
But SSI’s early lab studies show that the new strain had mutations in its so-called spike protein, which invades and infects healthy cells.
This could pose a problem for future vaccines that are currently in development as most of them focus on cutting off the spike protein.
The data was shared with international counterparts, including the WHO and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), and the genomic sequences of the mutated viral strains were recorded in the Global Initiative on Sharing All influenza data (GISAID).
SSI said it would continue to share its findings.
WHY WILL THE VIRUS SPREAD THROUGH MINK?
Mink appear to be susceptible to the new virus and to “good reservoirs” for the virus, the WHO said Thursday. Outbreaks have occurred on mink farms in Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain and the United States.
Since minks are kept in cages very close to each other, the virus can spread easily.
Mink and humans have a similar biological trait regarding a so-called ACE2 enzyme expressed by cells in the respiratory tract, which facilitates infection of mink with a virus that has adapted to humans, Allan Randrup Thomsen, virologist at Copenhagen University, told Reuters.
Mike Ryan, the WHO’s senior emergency specialist, said: “There is always the potential that it could come back to humans.”
“This is a problem because mammalian species like mink are very good hosts and the virus can evolve within these species, especially if they are in large numbers tightly clustered,” he said.
The new coronavirus is believed to have passed from animals to humans in China, possibly via bats or another animal at a food market in Wuhan.
ARE OTHER BREEDS AT RISK?
The risk is much lower in other farm animals, such as pigs and poultry, as farms have put in “very strict” biosecurity to prevent viruses from crossing the species barrier, Ryan said Friday. of the WHO.
The tests failed to infect the pigs, while the cattle were only infected “to a very low degree”, according to the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration.
He said a sample taken from a seagull’s leg tested positive for the new coronavirus, but there was no evidence it had infected birds.
IS THE MUTATION WORRYING?
Viral mutations happen all the time. Viruses survive by adapting to new environments and most mutations in the coronavirus are harmless.
Two factors are involved in the mutation, Molbak said. First, the virus must adapt to its new host. Second, when a virus enters a new population, many antibodies are created in the population, which is commonly referred to as herd immunity.
The virus reacts by creating what are known as antibody escape mutants, which try to avoid antibodies in the community.
WHAT ARE OTHER COUNTRIES AND WHO DOING?
The WHO said it was examining the biosecurity around mink-farming countries across the world to prevent further “spillover events.”
The discovery of the mutation is unlikely to change what governments and authorities around the world are doing to control the pandemic, he said Thursday.
Britain said on Friday it would force all travelers arriving from the Nordic country to self-isolate upon arrival following the outbreak, but did not see them as a risk to the country.
FACTBOX-What We Know About Denmark’s Mink Coronavirus Strain – SABC News
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