Danish government wants to dig up and burn millions of mink culled over COVID fears

Emily Cleary
·3-min read
Members of Danish health authorities are assisted by members of the Danish Armed Forces in disposing of dead mink in a military area near Holstebro in Denmark November 9, 2020. Picture taken November 9, 2020. Morten Stricker/Dagbladet Holstebro Struer/Jysk Fynske Medier/Ritzau Scanpix/via REUTERS    ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. DENMARK OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN DENMARK.     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Members of Danish health authorities were assisted by members of the Danish Armed Forces in disposing of dead mink in a military area near Holstebro in Denmark at the start of November (Morten Stricker/Dagbladet Holstebro Struer/Jysk Fynske Medier/Ritzau Scanpix/via Reuters)

Millions of dead mink destroyed to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Denmark could be dug up after hundreds resurfaced from mass graves.

The Danish government ordered all farmed mink to be culled early in November after finding that 12 people had been infected by a mutated strain of the virus that causes COVID-19, which passed from humans to mink and back to humans.

The decision led to 17 million animals being destroyed and to the resignation last week of Food and Agriculture minister Morgens Jensen, after it was determined that the order was illegal.

Dead mink were tipped into trenches at a military area in western Denmark and covered with two metres of soil. But hundreds have begun resurfacing, pushed out of the ground by what authorities say is gas from their decomposition.

Jensen's replacement in Denmark, Rasmus Prehn, said on Friday he supported the idea of digging up the animals and incinerating them. He said he had asked the environmental protection agency look into whether it could be done, and parliament would be briefed on the issue on Monday.

Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen reacts as she meets journalists after visiting a closed and empty mink farm near Kolding, Denmark, on November 26, 2020. - Prime Minister Frederiksen's government has acknowledged that its decision to cull more than 15 million minks had no legal basis for those not contaminated by the Covid-19 variant, infuriating breeders. A mutated version of the new coronavirus detected in Danish minks that raised concerns about the effectiveness of a future vaccine has likely been eradicated, Denmark's health ministry said on November 19, 2020. (Photo by Mads Nissen / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP) / Denmark OUT (Photo by MADS NISSEN/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images)
Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen reacts as she meets journalists after visiting a closed and empty mink farm near Kolding, Denmark, on Thursday (Mads Nissen / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP)

Newspapers have referred to the resurfaced animals as the "zombie mink."

The mutated strain of coronavirus that developed in the mink could have “grave consequences”, Matt Hancock warned at the time, and the government imposed an immediate ban on travel and freight from Denmark.

Hancock told Parliament: “Although the chance of this variant becoming widespread is low, the consequences should that happen would be grave.”

But fears that a new variant would compromise the effectiveness of a vaccine were allayed by experts.

Professor Soren Riis, from Denmark’s Aarhus University, said: “Based on the data, I don’t think you can conclude – and almost not even speculate – that this could be the breeding ground of a new pandemic or that the vaccines won’t work.”

Jen Lundgren, professor of the infectious disease department at Copenhagen’s Rigshospitalet hospital, said: “The data that have been released do not support (the claim) that this is a risk for vaccines not working.”

The macabre burial sites, guarded 24 hours a day to keep people and animals away, have drawn complaints from area residents about possible health risks.

Authorities say there is no risk of the graves spreading the coronavirus, but locals worry about the risk of contaminating drinking water and a bathing lake less than 200 metres away.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen's government has acknowledged that its decision to cull the minks had no legal basis for those not contaminated by the COVID-19 variant, infuriating breeders.

Opposition parties say the cull of healthy mink should not have been initiated before plans were in place to compensate the owners and workers at some 1,100 mink farms.

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK - NOVEMBER 21: Danish farmers drive their tractors in a protest demonstration through the capital and past Parliament on November 21, 2020 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Danish farmers accuse the government of breaching the constitution with an order to mass cull minks in Denmark. They also protest against the so-called Epedimic Law, issued in March 2020 which gave the Government unlimited power to fight the Corona thread, and which was used in the mink case. The Danish minority Government has presented a new Epidemic Law for the Parliament which, the organizers claims, provides for unconstitutional decisions and to deploy the army to assist the authorities in carrying through illegal decisions, the organizer, folkelighed.dk, states on their website. The farmers participated with some 500 tractors. (Photo by Ole Jensen/Getty Images)
Danish farmers drove tractors in a protest demonstration through Copenhagen, accusing the government of breaching the constitution with an order to mass cull minks at the start of November (Photo by Ole Jensen/Getty Images)

According to the World Health Organisation, since June 2020 there have been 214 human cases of COVID-19 in Denmark with SARS-CoV-2, or Covid-19, variants associated with farmed mink.

Of those, 12 cases had a unique variant, with all those cases identified in September 2020 in North Jutland, Denmark.

The virus was found in people aged from seven to 79 years, and eight had a link to the mink farming industry while four cases were from the local community.

Denmark has one of the lowest case and death rates of coronavirus in Europe, having recorded 74,722 infections to date, and 802 deaths.

Watch: What we know about the mink coronavirus strain