In the Netherlands, 69 of the 126 (55%) mink farms in total became infected with SARS-CoV-2 in 2020. Despite strict biosecurity measures and extensive epidemiological investigations, the main transmission route remained unclear. A better understanding of SARS-CoV-2 transmission between mink farms is of relevance for countries where mink farming is still common practice and can be used as a case study to improve future emerging disease preparedness. We assessed whether SARS-CoV-2 spilled over from mink to free-ranging animals, and whether free-ranging animals may have played a role in farm-to-farm transmission in the Netherlands. The study encompassed farm visits, farm questionnaires, expert workshops and SARS-CoV-2 RNA and antibody testing of samples from target animal species (bats, birds and free-ranging carnivores). In this study, we show that the open housing system of mink allowed access to birds, bats and most free-ranging carnivores, and that direct and indirect contact with mink was likely after entry, especially for free-ranging carnivores and birds. This allowed SARS-CoV-2 exposure to animals entering the mink farm, and subsequent infection or mechanical carriage by the target animal species. Moreover, mink can escape farms in some cases, and two SARS-CoV-2-positive mink were found outside farm premises. No other SARS-CoV-2-RNA-positive free-ranging animals were detected, suggesting there was no abundant circulation in the species tested during the study period. To investigate previous SARS-CoV-2 infections, SARS-CoV-2 antibody detection using lung extracts of carcasses was set up and validated. One tested beech marten did have SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, but the closest SARS-CoV-2-infected mink farm was outside of its home range, making infection at a mink farm unlikely. Knowing that virus exchange between different species and the formation of animal reservoirs affects SARS-CoV-2 evolution, continued vigilance and monitoring of mink farms and surrounding wildlife remains vital.
- animal husbandry
- One Health