Scientists are hoping to cool down fears following reports from Denmark claiming a potentially dangerous mutated variant of SARS-CoV-2 has been found in mink and can spread to humans.
The announcement led to some sensational headlines and wild speculation on social media, but scientists have warned that there’s currently very little scientific information available about the variant. It's certainly a development that scientists need to keep a close eye on, but many researchers are hesitant to sound the panic alarm before seeing any hard evidence. Some have gone further and suggested many of the claims are overblown.
The Danish government announced on November 4 that it plans to cull its mink population of up to 17 million after Danish scientific authorities at Statens Serum Institut (SSI) found at least 12 people in the country have been infected with a mutated variant of SARS-CoV-2 that’s been found in five mink fur farms in the north of the country. Most shockingly, the SSI suggested that the mink variant is less sensitive to protective antibodies, raising concerns about vaccine development. This led Danish politicians to release statements to the media saying the mutated variant might “affect the effectiveness of the current candidate for a vaccine against Covid-19.”
This is a big claim, but most scientists outside of the SSI aren’t quite sure what it’s based on because the data has not yet been publicly released.
“This should not be a cause for panic,” tweeted Dr Angela Rasmussen, PhD, a virologist and an associate research scientist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.
“I really wish that the trend of science by press release would stop,” they added. “There's no reason why the genomic data couldn't be shared, which would allow the scientific community to evaluate these claims. It's hard to communicate risk when you haven't seen the data.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been working with the SSI and the wider scientific community to further understand this variant and to verify preliminary findings. There is still much to know, the WHO says, but they suggest the new variant appears to be similar to the many variants of SARS-CoV-2 viruses that have been identified around the world.
“Initial observations suggest that the clinical presentation, severity, and transmission among those infected are similar to that of other circulating SARS-CoV-2 viruses. However, this variant, referred to as the 'cluster 5' variant, had a combination of mutations, or changes that have not been previously observed. The implications of the identified changes in this variant are not yet well understood,” the WHO said in a statement.
It’s been clear for some time that SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted from mink to human, with hundreds of human cases in Denmark thought to be linked to the animals. There have also been confirmed cases of both minks and humans contracting Covid-19 at fur farms in the US, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Italy. It's thought that the cramped conditions of fur farms make it easy for the virus to spread through the population.
Mutations might sound scary, but it’s totally normal for viruses to mutate or change over time. SARS-CoV-2, like all viruses, will have undergone countless changes across the world, most of which have little real consequence. Further to that point, there is no evidence yet to suggest that this newly identified variant is any more deadly, dangerous, or transmissible to the many variants currently circulating through the world’s population.
“The true implication of the changes in the spike protein have not yet been evaluated by the international scientific community and are thus unclear. It is too early to say that the change will cause either vaccines or immunity to fail," commented Professor James Wood, head of Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge in the UK.
Professor Francois Balloux, director of University College London's Genetics Institute, was also skeptical about some of the claims around this new variant found in Denmark, tweeting last week: “SARS-CoV-2 mutations acquired in minks are not concerning."
“The 'vaccine escape' scare story is just idiotic," they added, commenting about the suggestion a mutation might affect a future vaccine. "Vaccine-escape mutations may (or not) arise in humans in the future, if they are advantageous to the virus (once vaccines will be deployed). They definitely won't be fueled by mutations having emerged in minks.”