A mutated form of coronavirus found in Danish mink has been identified in 214 people as the British government removed the country from its list of non-quarantine air bridges.
According to experts, the strain of the virus found in mink being farmed for fur in 207 farms concentrated in Jutland is sufficiently different to raise concerns about what it might mean for future vaccines.
Denmark’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, said the strain “could pose a risk that future vaccines won’t work”.
Frederiksen’s comments, in which she called for “immediate action” adding that the “eyes of the world are on us”, came as more than 280,000 people in the north Jutland region were put into lockdown over the spread of the mutated virus.
Frederiksen told a news conference on Thursday: “From tonight, citizens in seven areas of north Jutland are strongly encouraged to stay in their area to prevent the spread of infection..
“We are asking you in north Jutland to do something completely extraordinary. The eyes of the world are on us.”
The World Health Organization said on Friday it was looking at biosecurity in other countries where there are mink farms after Denmark ordered a nationwide cull of the animals.
Maria van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for Covid-19, told a WHO news briefing in Geneva that the transmission of the virus between animals and humans was “a concern” with a second expert saying the risk was higher in mink.
“We are working with regional offices … where there are mink farms, and looking at biosecurity and to prevent spillover events,” van Kerkhove said.
While relatively little is known about the new mutation, Magnus Heunicke, the Danish minister for health and elderly affairs, told a recent press briefing that there is no sign yet that the mutant virus causes more serious symptoms of Covid-19.
However, concern is centring on the fact that most mutations of the virus so far identified have been similar enough for there to be hope that vaccines in development will work on them; the new mutation reportedly diverges to a greater degree.
Equally alarming has been the rapid spread of the variation, which has jumped from 12 infections to well over 200 in a short period of time, according to Denmark’s infectious diseases agency. The mutation had originally been identified in five mink farms.
The north Jutland lockdown and Frederiksen’s warning followed the decision by the country to cull its population of some 17 million mink to minimise the risk of them retransmitting the disease.
The UK government announced that Denmark would be removed from the safe travel list following the spread of the mutated virus. Grant Shapps, transport secretary, announced in an “urgent” late-night update that the country had lost its quarantine-free status at 4am.
While the emergence of the mutation has sparked alarm, scientists were divided over the implications for a virus that has infected dozens of species of mammals so far.
Dr Lucy van Dorp, a scientist at University College London, took to Twitter to point out that at least five other unique mutations of the virus in mink had been identified before but that more information was needed to assess any risks.