COVID and the link to mink: let’s not forget China’s fur industry

With one foot in Asia and one in Europe, I’m conscious of the excellent vantage point we have at ACTAsia. It’s easy to forget, and wonder how the world can ignore or deny China’s role in the international fur trade. That’s why it’s our duty to issue a warning.

The argument against fur can no longer be just about animal protection, nor pollution and toxic waste. Now the tragic risk posed by intensively farming wild animals is clear for us all to see, through the terrible development of a mutated strain of COVID-19 among mink in Denmark – SARS-CoV-2.

The virus has mutated in zoonotic transfer to a novel strain, resistant to the new vaccines, which had given us reason to be hopeful over recent weeks, as reported by the European Disease Control Centre in their risk assessment report.

In Europe, the fur industry has been forced to take responsibility for containing the disease by culling tens of millions of mink. COVID has now been found in mink bred for fur in nine countries where culls are taking place, including Denmark, France, Poland, the Netherlands and Greece. While raccoon dogs have not yet been implicated in the spread of disease, they also have the potential. As more bans on fur farming are put into place, it might look as though the end is in sight. “But what about China?” This is the question I have been asked by the media from the UK, USA, Netherlands and Finland in recent weeks.

This farm in Northern China promotes itself as China’s biggest mink farm, with 52,000 breeding mink.

China’s fur industry is the biggest in the world. Last year, we published our report on China’s fur trade, stating the quantity of animals farmed for their fur in China has historically been underestimated. ACTAsia’s latest research found that during 2019 China’s production of mink dipped to its lowest point in history, yet still reached 11.69 million animals. Production of fox was 14.43 million, and raccoon dog 13.59 million. The drop in production of mink reflects both a shift in demand as preferences change to other types of fur, but also a problem with over-supply, particularly notable over the year 2014, when numbers hit a staggering 60 million of a 112 million global total of mink, according to data from China’s Leather Industry Association (CLIA). China’s production of fox has risen another 1.5 million since that boon year of 2014, while raccoon dog has stayed stable. While fashions change and demand for full mink coats is partly replaced with a huge demand for fur trim and accessories, supply and demand for fur in China continues to thrive.

Finnish-bred ‘monster’ fox arrive in China for further breeding.

Our fur report also brought to light a thriving web of new international business relationships between China and the rest of the world. In January this year, China imported 6,000 live mink from Denmark to boost its stock. Business deals importing fox studs from Finland also continue, including the infamous ‘monster fox’, selected and bred for its enormous, mutated size and vast expanse of fur.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, China has not grabbed the opportunity to set a global example. While the world congratulated China for passing a law to ban eating wildlife, the Nation People’s Congress moved mink, fox and raccoon dog to the National Catalogue of Livestock, under the Animal Husbandry Law for domesticated farmed animals. The move is unforgiveable. Many scientists argue that it takes thousands of years to domesticate animals, and the stress that captive wildlife suffers on intensive farms is both abhorrent to the individuals, and a cause of disease. And we know where that can lead.

Live mink arrive in China from Denmark.

There has been no response from China regarding the risk of farming wild animals for any purposes other than food. In fact, consultation closed for revision of the wildlife law on 19 November, with many wild animal species added to an arbitrary list of ‘livestock’ animals which can be intensively farmed. Permits to breed are issued with a purpose, such as food, which can then be simply swapped to TCM or entertainment. The possibilities are terrifying, stretching to reducing endangered species such as tigers, bears and pangolins to livestock.

Globally, there is helpful new guidance on working with farmed animals susceptible to infection with SARS-CoV-2, from the Office International des Epizooties (OIE), also known as the World Organisation for Animal Health. The risk of transmission from people to animals is high in mustelids, including mink, ferrets and raccoon dogs, while the risk of transmission back to humans in contact with animals is also high. This means there’s a high risk that farm workers infected with SARS-CoV-2 could spread the disease between individual fur farms. There are also serious concerns for the potential for human slavery in the wildlife trade with migrant ‘agency’ workers, causing extreme human welfare concerns.

China proudly receives a shipment of ‘monster’ fox from Finland.

There’s also a risk of transporting disease across borders through contact with infected raw pelts, as with other animal-derived produce, such as pork recently exported from Germany to China which arrived contaminated with COVID-19. While there’s a higher risk for workers, there’s also a low risk that contaminated pelts and fur items could spread disease to consumers themselves.

Even if this outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 is successfully contained, there’s a high chance that farming fur could be the catalyst for another pandemic to carve its deadly destruction through global society. China’s fur industry is like an atomic bomb waiting to detonate through spillover, a catastrophe which could reduce the world to chaos once again. Farming wild animals could kill us all.

Fur has been a preoccupation with ACTAsia for years now, and we continue to work through our Caring for Life education programme to inform the media and the public about China’s fur trade. We work with fashion retailers to expand the Fur Free Retailers scheme and talk to an international audience, to consumers of fur, but also to governments, the fur-free movement, fashion colleges and students, teachers and children.

Now that China’s law is not likely to protect us from pandemics in future, nor protect animals or nature from commercial exploitation, the need for a global ban on fur production is the only safe way forward. Now, our work is more pertinent than ever.