The Government is Covering up COVID-19 at Mink Farms – and Blaming Animal Rights Activists
Mink farms might be the most dangerous workplaces in the world, with astonishingly high infection rates and a mutating virus. But instead of addressing the problem, the US government has been hiding it.
Transparency is crucial to an effective response to a pandemic. Without open disclosure, citizens are unable to keep themselves safe. They lose trust in official communications. And they are susceptible to paranoia, as rumors spread in place of accurate information.
Yet documents DxE and partner groups have uncovered show that, with respect to factory farming of mink, state and federal agencies are being the opposite of transparent: they have knowingly made false statements about the spread of COVID-19 to protect the industry -- including concealing the death of a farm manager -- and even used counter-terrorism resources to surveil animal rights activists who are exposing outbreaks.
Political authorities have been tempted through history to engage in this sort of behavior in the face of pandemics. Accepting the facts of an outbreak, after all, disrupts powerful special interests, such as factory farming. But manipulating information to cater to such interests will undermine our public health response. This is why the World Health Organization’s manual on outbreak communications highlights the risk of information suppression during a pandemic: “Outbreak control can be severely impeded when political authorities, motivated by economic rather than public health concerns, decide to withhold information about an outbreak, downplay its significance, or conceal it altogether.”
Sadly, misinformation and secrecy have already caused severe problems in the global response to COVID-19. China has been rightly criticized for suppressing information in the pandemic’s earliest stages. Notably, a doctor in Wuhan, Li Wenliang, was reprimanded for sounding the alarm about a strange new virus that was spreading among patients in December of 2019 (Tragically, Li died of COVID-19 in February, leaving a wife pregnant with their second child.) To this day, the Chinese government has refused to acknowledge mistakes.
Similarly, Donald Trump’s signature failure was an inability to reckon with the facts about the spread of COVID-19, rejecting the science behind face masks and discounting the virus as no more serious than the common flu. Public health experts rightly scolded this response, and the most recent election was in part a referendum on Trump’s disastrous COVID-19 strategy. The United States now has suffered nearly 25 million cases of COVID-19, more than twice the next highest total (India, with four times the population of the United States, comes in 2nd with 10 million), in part due to the failures of transparency.
But what if there were an area, with tens of thousands of COVID-19 infections spreading in ways that could lead to mutation, untraceable transmission, and long term risks to our nation, where the suppressive tactics of the Chinese government and Trump administration have been uncritically adopted by both Democratic and Republican politicians?
This is no hypothetical. This is the truth of what’s unfolding in the mink farming industry. Perhaps most perversely, documents show that this all being done to protect the factory farming industry from the “threat” posed, not by a rapidly spreading and mutating virus, but by... animal rights activists.
But let’s start with some basic facts about mink and COVID-19.
Mink are the only known animal able to catch the virus from human beings, and to also transmit it to human beings. This is partly because animals in their biological family (including ferrets and weasels) are vulnerable to respiratory diseases. They suffer from the seasonal flu, just as we do, and their biological response to infection (including pneumonia) is similar to humans. The millions of mink that have been sickened worldwide, and the thousands that have died, are a potential threat to not just the mink but to public health.
This threat, moreover, is particularly stark for two reasons.
First, when a virus jumps to another species then back to human beings, there is a risk that the unique factors in the new species cause mutations that make the disease more dangerous. This is exactly what was documented when scientists in Denmark sequenced and identified one mink variant of the virus. There were changes to the so-called spike proteins on the surface of the virus that allow it to embed in human cells. (Similar changes are behind the now rapidly spreading new variant of the virus from the United Kingdom, which is estimated to be 50% more infectious and perhaps more deadly, too.) Indeed, cross species transmission is part of the origin story of the current coronavirus. The COVID-19 virus is a so-called “novel coronavirus” because it developed in another species. Human beings therefore had no natural immunity to this new virus, unlike other coronaviruses, including some that can cause the common cold.
Second, while we have effective techniques to control viral spread for human beings and, to a lesser extent, domesticated animals, we can’t easily do the same for wild animals. It is possible to quarantine or vaccinate human beings at a clinic, dogs at an animal shelter, or even pigs in a factory farm. But when wild animals (including captive animals who escape) are infected, we cannot ask them to engage in social distancing or contact tracing. The virus now has what’s called a “reservoir host” that is out of our control. This will make eradication in humans almost impossible, as the virus will continue to spread and mutate -- and perhaps jump back to human beings years later, with even greater contagiousness or lethality. The wild animal population becomes a “reservoir” for the next pandemic.
This is exactly why scientists such as Jonathan Epstein, one of the key figures in discovering the animal origin of the first SARS outbreak in 2003, have warned us about the threat posed by wild transmission of COVID-19.
Documents uncovered by DxE, however, show that, far from taking this threat seriously, political authorities in the United States have been ignoring it -- using misinformation to justify secrecy and inaction. The documents at issue were obtained by DxE through open records act requests, leaks, and review of publicly filed documents in the four states where mink farms have suffered serious outbreaks, including tens of thousands of dying mink. And they paint a disturbing picture: a government that is too cozy with the farming industry and seemingly unconcerned about public health consequences -- even when human lives are at stake.
Our findings reveal:
- Misstatements about the spread of disease by government officials in legal proceedings, including false legal fillings denying the transmission of COVID-19 to wild animals.
- Counter-terrorism programs used to sound the alarm, not about spreading disease, but of threats to the industry posed by peaceful animal rights activists.
- Contradictions in public health policy, including demanding vaccines for mink workers (on the grounds of COVID-19 risk) while denying transparency (on the grounds that there is no COVID-19 risk).
- Perhaps most disturbingly, the apparent concealment of at least one farm manager death at a mink farm, even as the public has been assured that there is no risk.
What is happening right now at US mink farms is not just unlawful and unjust. It is a recipe for the next pandemic.
But let’s start from the beginning.
On April 26, the Netherlands became the first country to disclose an outbreak of COVID-19 at mink farms. Once the virus was introduced, likely by a farm worker, it spread like wildfire. On mink farms, animals are crammed shoulder to shoulder in cages that are not much larger than their bodies. They live in stressful and filthy conditions, and often scream as they are placed in gas chambers. Housing thousands of fearful, crying animals in the same industrial shed is a recipe for an outbreak. There is no social distancing in a mink farm.
Even more alarming, the disease apparently was being passed on Dutch farms from mink back to humans. This contradicted early reports, which were dismissive of this risk. “Mink companies do not pose a risk of further spread to humans,” one report stated. But then Dutch scientists undertook what scientists call “whole genomic sequencing,” whereby they examined the entire genome of the virus to determine its origin. They found something startling: the disease in some workers showed the distinctive markers of having come from the mink, not from other human beings.
Mink were giving human beings COVID-19.
On May 20 and 25, Dutch scientists wrote to the nation’s legislature, indicating that they had to reverse the prior guidance, saying that “it is most likely” that one or more employees “has been infected by a mink.” Even Fur Europe, an umbrella organization representing the European fur industry, circulated an alert acknowledging this new development, writing on May 26 to its members that the coronavirus is “transmissible from human to mink, and likely transmissible back to humans again.” Six months later, this finding was reinforced by a peer-reviewed publication in the prestigious journal Science, which found not only that mink had infected human beings, but that a shocking 68% of workers in the Dutch mink industry had tested positive for COVID-19 or its antibodies. This is over 7 times the rates found in meatpacking plants (9.1%) and up to 17 times the rate found in frontline healthcare workers (3.9%).
This was enough for the Dutch government to shut down the entire mink farming industry. The government ordered an immediate cull of all mink, and passed an accelerated phaseout of the entire industry that will go into effect in 2021. Over the next few months, mink farm outbreaks developed in nation after nation, including Ireland, Spain, and Denmark. And most nations have responded in virtually the same way: disclosing the outbreaks and shutting down the industry.
In contrast, the United States appears to be doing little to nothing. We have shut down restaurants, bars, churches, concerts, sporting events, and schools, but authorities in every state have refused to intervene to close down mink farms. Indeed, they have refused to even disclose the location or severity of local outbreaks or engage in the basic surveillance measures advised by the WHO, such as testing the mink. In many contexts, this conduct is not just counterproductive but also illegal.
This misconduct starts at the US Department of Agriculture. While in the Netherlands, public health officials immediately updated the national legislature about mink-to-human transmission when it was verified, documents we’ve obtained from open records requests to the USDA show that the agency was apparently dismissing this finding at exactly the same time. On the very day that the Netherlands reported mink-to-human transmission, May 20, the USDA was circulating a draft public statement indicating, “There is currently no evidence that mink or other mustelids can spread SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to humans.”
After many weeks of seemingly contested edits -- including a long-time disease expert at the USDA complaining that Burke Healey, the cattle rancher who had been appointed Chief Veterinary Officer, would offer “VERY BAD WORDS” -- the final USDA statement on mink farming was released without any mention of the clear evidence of mink-to-human transmission.
Instead, the USDA’s statement implies a lack of scientific consensus, stating, “We are still learning about SARS-CoV-2 in animals, but there is currently no evidence that animals, including mink or other mustelids, play a significant role in spreading the virus to humans.” Ambiguity was therefore injected into a situation where there was clear evidence, published in the top peer reviewed journal in the sciences, to report.
While the USDA was making errors of omission, however, state governments were acting even more badly: they were actively concealing important information. In Oregon, for example, Governor Kate Brown has refused to disclose the location of outbreaks, even after it was revealed that a mink farm was suffering from COVID-19. This action was in seeming conflict with an Oregon directive requiring open disclosure of workplace COVID-19 outbreaks.
This is why DxE sent activists to Oregon to observe mink farms (from a safe distance) with drones. And when our drone saw an individual in full biosecurity gear entering a local mink farm, we published it openly. The individual turned out to be the state veterinarian of Oregon, Ryan Scholz, and after DxE released this info, the government all but conceded the farm was indeed the site of an outbreak. But it should not have come to this. Other nations, recognizing the importance of transparency, have openly disclosed the location of outbreaks. Indeed, in the Netherlands, the authorities went much further, not just disclosing the location of outbreaks, but shutting down the public streets within 400 meters.
But what was a frustrating case of government inaction turned into something more insidious when, in the wake of local media reporting on our outing of Oregon’s secret mink farm outbreak, we were leaked a confidential bulletin from the state of Oregon’s “Titan Fusion Center.” So-called Fusion Centers are anti-terrorism intelligence hubs that were established after the 9/11 attacks. The centers are intended to foster the sharing of information across divisions of law enforcement. They have gained attention for their sometimes unlawful surveillance of environmental and Black Lives Matter activists. But despite being a controversial use of anti-terrorism resources, the Oregon Fusion Center mostly flies under the radar, and is supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. The state’s Democratic Attorney General, Ellen Rosenblum, defended the Fusion Center as doing essential work, even as the Center was investigating Oregon residents for using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter.
The bulletin leaked to us focused on the threat posed, not by a raging pandemic, but by animal rights activists in Oregon. The bulletin repeats the USDA’s flawed guidance on mink farms, minimizing the risk of transmission. The bulletin then points out the size and significance of the local mink industry (4th in the nation). And it states that “groups that continue to advocate for direct action pose a potential threat to mink farmers in Oregon.” Given this threat, it encourages continued reporting to the Fusion Center of any “suspicious activity.” While the bulletin concedes that DxE “promotes non-violent [sic], lawful activities,” it also states that our tactics are used by “the criminal derivative of animal activism.” This comes despite the fact that every single action taken by DxE in Oregon was indisputably legal, First Amendment activity. While the state of Oregon was not acting to protect the public from COVID-19 at mink farms, in short, it was using counter-terrorism resources to protect the industry from lawful advocacy. Your tax dollars at work.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the problem with COVID-19 at mink farms in Oregon has worsened. Despite claiming the outbreak has been under control, the Oregon state veterinarian acknowledged in late December that at least one mink trapped in the wild tested positive for COVID-19. That alarming fact is buried in a bizarre press release with the headline, “Mink at affected Oregon farm negative for SARS-CoV-2, wildlife surveillance continues.” You would think, based on the headline, that it was good news! Moreover, despite the fact that 100% of the samples tested at one farm came back positive for COVID-19, Ryan Scholz, the Oregon state veterinarian, has stated publicly that not a single mink, out of thousands that have likely been sickened, has died of COVID-19. (Death rates have approached 50% of breeding animals in other states.)
Throughout this time period, it appears that the state of Oregon has refused to do routine testing at mink farms, much less genomic sequencing, claiming that it’s too risky for state officials to enter mink farms. “The USDA and the CDC have advised against it for a number of different reasons, not the least of which, for us to go onto those farms and do that testing, it actually poses a pretty high risk of introducing the virus onto the farm,” Scholz claimed. But Oregon has cited no USDA or CDC guidance for this statement. And it has not answered an obvious question: if it’s too dangerous to even do COVID-19 testing at mink farms, by trained professionals with biosecurity gear, why isn’t the industry too dangerous for workers and local community members, too?
The story only gets stranger, though, when we go to Utah. Over the last few months, a local nonprofit, the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, has requested information about local mink farm outbreaks under the state’s open records act, GRAMA, only to be repeatedly stonewalled. Even as a Utah District Court Judge ruled that the public had a “significant and weighty interest in knowing about COVID-19 outbreaks, where and how they happen [and] who they happen to,” the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) has refused to disclose the location, severity, or investigative reports from at least 12 local mink farm outbreaks. Worse yet, it has made three troubling misstatements in legal filings to justify this lack of transparency and action.
First, parroting Oregon’s Counter-Terrorism center, the UDAF has argued that disclosing the mink farms will encourage animal rights activists to enter the farms and spread the virus. Not only does this argument completely contradict the state’s claims that risk of COVID-19 transmission from mink is extremely low, UDAF’s bizarre hypothetical has never happened before in history. (Though there was a famous movie where this hypothetical came to life, 28 Days Later. But, of course, this movie was fictional.) Why would animal rights activists, or anyone for that matter, go into a farm with an active outbreak? Perhaps the state of Utah should focus on real terrorists.
Second, the state has repeatedly stated that the mink outbreak has been contained, and it falsely claimed that no wild animal had tested positive for the disease. On Dec 8, the state filed a legal brief claiming there had been no wild animal transmission and that the outbreaks are under control. They repeated this claim on Dec 10 at a legal hearing (listen right after 44:00). Literally one day later, on Dec. 11, it was revealed on an international public health mailing list that this is not true, based on tests carried out months earlier. The release of COVID-19 to the wild was apparently important enough for USDA scientists to warn international disease experts -- making global headlines -- but not important enough for Utah to tell its own citizens.
Third, and perhaps most disturbingly, while minimizing the impact of the mink outbreaks, the state of Utah failed to disclose that a mink farm manager had died. Evidence of this came to us in a roundabout fashion. Given Utah’s stonewalling, our partner groups submitted an open records act request to Washington State University, a public institution that is home to the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Library (WADDL), which carries out laboratory testing for the USDA and other agencies. Washington State released a set of documents including one crucial email from Tom Baldwin, a veterinarian at Utah State University who was investigating the COVID-19 outbreaks on Utah mink farms. This email not only stated that “mink are dying at concerning rates” but disclosed that farm workers have been infected and at least one farm manager had died.
We cannot be sure the farm manager at issue died from mink transmission, given that the state of Utah has not disclosed any genomic testing at this site or any other site. What we can say is that the state government was actively arguing in legal proceedings that the outbreak was under control, that no wild animals had been infected, and that the risks of mink transmission were tremendously low. All of these statements were apparently false. Indeed, behind the scenes, a veterinarian working for the state was expressing alarm about not just dying mink, but about infections among workers, and at least one death.
Perhaps the WHO’s guidance on this issue is worth repeating: “Outbreak control can be severely impeded when political authorities, motivated by economic rather than public health concerns, decide to withhold information about an outbreak, downplay its significance, or conceal it altogether.” At the USDA, and in Oregon and Utah, it’s as if our political authorities read this manual and decided it was Opposite Day. But unlike a child’s game, the outbreaks at mink farms will have real consequences.
The end of the story comes from Wisconsin, the nation’s #1 mink farming state. As with Oregon and Utah, Wisconsin has not disclosed crucial information about local outbreaks, but we are still in the process of submitting open records act requests. However, perhaps the most ironic development in the mink COVID story has unfolded in that state, where the industry is attempting to jump the line to obtain vaccines for its workers, due to the risks of COVID in the mink industry. A government subcommittee in Wisconsin agreed, stating, “International outbreaks associated with mink husbandry have resulted in genomic changes of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. These changes are concerning and pose a biosecurity risk for the current vaccine campaign. Vaccine should be prioritized for this group to reduce the risk that mink variants with spike-protein mutations will spread from animals to humans and potentially reduce vaccine effectiveness.” But how can COVID in mink farms be dangerous enough to justify putting mink farm workers in the same camp as frontline medical professionals, while not dangerous enough to even disclose to local communities? Why are facilities where thousands of animals are caged, killed, and skinned being equated with facilities where we are literally saving human lives?
And why are we continuing to operate (and use scarce vaccines on) an industry that plausibly has up to a 17 times higher rate of infection than frontline medical workers while publicly denying there are any risks? Is high end fashion -- with coats often priced over $10,000 -- really that essential?
The answer to these questions lies with agriculture’s disproportionate influence on our political system. For 400 years, this has been a country of farmers, including almost all the founding fathers. In the 1800s, 90% of Americans lived on farms; today, the figure is around 1%. Our political institutions, from the USDA (with a mission to support agriculture, rather than regulate it) to the gargantuan federal Farm Bill (which sends billions of dollars in subsidies to Big Ag corporations with bipartisan support), have been designed to favor agricultural interests. For most of our history, supporting farming has been supporting America.
But that has dramatically changed. Industrialization has made the factory farming of animals vastly more efficient and reduced the amount of labor involved. And increasingly the business of agriculture is run, not by ordinary people, but by global mega corporations, such as Chinese-owned Smithfield and the corporate buyers of U.S.-reared mink pelts, almost all of whom are also located in China.
But if we don’t wake up soon and realize that animal agribusiness, like Big Tobacco or Big Oil, do not represent the interests of ordinary people, it may be too late to stop the next pandemic.
Over the next few days, we will be pushing the Biden Administration to wake up to this fact. Our partners have sent a letter to the Centers for Disease Control, the USDA, and relevant state agencies pleading for transparency and action on mink farming. But in the long run, it will take more: a populace educated on the threats posed by industrial farming, and ready to challenge the abuses of this industry to make a better future for our children.
Our letters to the USDA and CDC can be found here.
Please read and sign the petition asking the USDA and CDC to take immediate action to stop the mink industry from endangering our communities.