“I’m Only a Mink Killer”: How COVID Caused Denmark’s Historic Fur-Industry Disaster

Lars Holten Hansen spent the first Saturday in November in his barn in northern Denmark, killing the mink that his family had raised for two generations. His partner, Rina Skjøth, who designs jewelry and other items with fur from their animals when she isn’t overseeing the breeding, was on the phone, trying to explain between sobs what it was like to comply with the Danish government’s orders to exterminate their herd. “People keep asking me how it feels as a mink breeder to have this happen,” she said. “But I’m not a mink breeder anymore. As of last week, I’m only a mink killer.”

Little-known fact: Denmark—the land of hygge, well-designed furniture, and generous parental leave—is also the world’s largest exporter of mink fur. Or at least it was until earlier this month, after a new and potentially dangerous mutation in the coronavirus, called “cluster 5,” was discovered to have jumped from mink to humans. In response to the perceived threat, Denmark’s Social Democrat–led government ordered the country’s entire flock—up to 17 million animals—destroyed.

For the owners of Denmark’s 1,100 or so mink farms, the order is personally and economically devastating. It is also provoking something of an existential crisis within the fur industry, threatening supply chains, shuttering the world’s largest fur auction house, and prompting both animal rights activists and luxury-fashion insiders alike to wonder if the Danish cull might be the final nail in the coffin for fur. Yet the order’s greatest impact may well turn out to be on the government that executed it. With one high-ranking official already forced to resign, and more, including Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, in the line of fire, #minkgate has become a major scandal, and Denmark’s first COVID-related controversy.

Health experts have known for some time that the coronavirus could be transmitted between humans and mink; seven countries, including the U.S., Spain, and the Netherlands, have now reported mink-related COVID-19 mutations in humans, and in Denmark alone, over 200 people were infected with mink-associated strains between June and the first week of November. But when the new cluster 5 was found in 12 people in the north of the country, it raised red flags. Because the strain showed “moderately decreased sensitivity” to neutralizing antibodies, according to the World Health Organization—and therefore may be less responsive to vaccines currently in development—the Danish government decided to take no chances. On November 4, it locked down seven municipalities near the 7.8 kilometer infection zone where cluster 5 had been found, and ordered the culling of all mink nationwide.

“We have a great responsibility towards our own population,” Frederiksen said at a press conference that day. “But with the mutation that has now been found, we have an even greater responsibility for the rest of the world as well.”

For those in the Danish fur industry, the order seemed to come out of nowhere. “I’ve been hearing that the mink has the virus for four or five months now, and there had been some selective culls,” says Copenhagen furrier Michael Stampe. “But [the news] still came as a shock. I never would have believed that they would take a decision to let down all the farms in Denmark, and with so little plan for the future.”

Tyra Grove Krause, head of the infectious disease epidemiology and prevention department at Denmark’s Statens Serum Institut, said at a press conference that although the mutation’s true risk could not be confirmed until more studies were done, “in order to act in time, we felt it was important to share the information and react on [it].” Some independent scientists have agreed. François Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, told the AFP that the measure was “entirely justifiable from a health perspective to eliminate the transmission source of a serious virus.” But others, like Marion Koopmans, head of viroscience at Rotterdam’s Erasmus Medical Center, questioned whether enough was known to ascertain a potential impact on vaccines. “A single mutation,” she told STAT News, “I would not expect to have that dramatic an effect.”

But scientific authority wasn’t the only kind in doubt: About a week after the order was announced, the minister of food and agriculture, Mogens Jensen, admitted the government had “made a mistake” in ordering the cull of all of Denmark’s mink, and that “there is no legal authority to ask mink breeders to slaughter their mink outside the zones that have been made.”

Although Jensen apologized, confidence in him plummeted, and politicians from opposing parties, as well as some within his own, began calling on him to resign. He stuck it out until Wednesday, resigning after a report surfaced that he had received documents as far back as September that additional legislation would be necessary before the government could order sweeping cull orders.

But Jensen’s resignation has not quelled the outcry, especially after the Wednesday report also revealed that other ministers knew the order was illegal at the time it was issued. And the unrest threatens to reach even higher. “The prime minister is responsible for the illegal order,” tweeted opposition leader Jakob Ellemann-Jensen on Wednesday. “She made the decision and did not intervene to stop it when she became aware it was illegal. The case does not stop with Mogen Jensen’s departure.”