Utah mink is first known case of the coronavirus in a wild animal

This apparently rare spread was likely picked up from farmed animals

A wild mink, like this one, likely caught the coronavirus from infected minks living on a farm, researchers say.

Kayla E/iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC 4.0)

A wild mink in Utah is the first wild animal found to be infected with the new coronavirus

A December 13 report by researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests the animal picked up its infection from farmed mink. The wild animal hosted a version of the virus that appears identical to what was seen in nearby farmed mink.

The researchers had been conducting a survey of wildlife. They were looking for any animals infected with the new coronavirus. The focus was on areas near mink farms. Those farms had reported outbreaks of the virus, known as SARS-CoV-2, from August 24 to October 30. Only the one wild animal tested positive.

There is no evidence, therefore, that the virus is spreading between wild animals in the United States or anywhere else.

If this virus were to spread broadly among wild or farmed minks, it might continue to evolve in these animals. Then the virus could develop genetic changes — mutations — that might not occur in people. Such changes might let the virus jump to other types of animals and make them sick. Or it might allow the mink to transmit a new strain back to people — perhaps one that might prove more potent.

To date, there have been several outbreaks of this virus on mink farms in the United States and Europe. Infected people originally spread the virus to these animals. Later, however, small genetic changes showed up in viruses infecting people and minks in Europe. Those changes showed that the coronavirus has now spread from mink back to people. Bas B. Oude Munnink is a post-doctoral scientist. He works in the Netherlands at Erasmus University. It’s in Rotterdam. Oude Munnick was part of a team that on November 10 in Science described that mink-to-human spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Millions of farmed mink in Denmark were killed in early November. The government had raised concern that the mink version of the coronavirus might make future COVID-19 vaccines less effective. That could happen if parts of antibodies produced by the vaccine fail to recognize a targeted part of the mutated virus. Then those new forms of the virus might get passed to other people.

The good news: There are no signs that mink forms of the virus will weaken vaccines.

Erin I. Garcia de Jesus is a staff writer at Science News. She holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington and a master’s in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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