Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Finnish Food Safety Authority: H5N1 Detected In 14 Additional Fur (Fox) Farms


Last July Finland reported an outbreak of H5N1 in 20 fur farms (foxes, raccoons, mink), and after a slow initial response, the Finnish Food Safety Authority (Ruokavirasto) announced a plan to test all mink farms (starting in September), to be followed by testing all other fur farms (beginning in November).

Last summer, in PNAS: Mink Farming Poses Risks for Future Viral Pandemics, we looked at an excellent opinion piece penned by two well known virologists from the UK (Professor Wendy Barclay & Tom Peacockon why fur farms - and mink farms in particular - are high risk venues for flu.

Only 6 mink farms were identified as infected as of November 1st, but eleven days ago Ruokavirasto announced that in their first week of testing non-mink fur farms, 10 of 38 farms tested (26.3%) were positive for HPAI H5N1 antibodies.

This was an unexpected finding, and while the agency has not published any new press releases, they have since updated their list of affected fur farms twice, adding an additional 14 fur farms (see graphic below).

We don't currently know how many farms have been tested, but this is a remarkable increase. In their last update on November 10th, the Finnish Food Authority suggested:

Possibly foxes are more sensitive than minks to getting infected with bird flu, or the bird protection of fox farms has not been as good as that of mink farms, or there have been more fox farms in areas where there have been many bird flu infections of wild birds.

The Finnish Food Agency is using antibody testing rather than PCR testing, in order to more quickly identify farms that have been infected.  This does not, however, reveal whether these animals are currently infected, only that they have (probably fairly recently) been infected. 

Doing individual PCR tests on hundreds of thousands of farm animals is simply impractical, and so any foxes/mink kept on farms that test positive for H5N1 antibodies have been ordered to be euthanized.  

FIFUR, the Finnish Fur Breeders’ Association, has gone on record vehemently opposing this type of testing, and the culling policy.

FIFUR and the certified fur breeders within its scope oppose the exclusive antibody testing of fur animals introduced by the Food Agency and the forced euthanasia of tens of thousands of healthy animals based on antibodies alone. FIFUR demands the authorities to return to the broader diagnostics required by law and to apply legal measures. According to FIFUR's view, antibody testing alone and the harsh coercive measures imposed on its basis are against the Animal Diseases Act and violate the basic legal property protection of entrepreneurs.

Although this particular policy may end up decided by the Finnish courts, the greater concern is that fur farms are ideal breeding grounds for new, and potentially dangerous, novel flu and COVID strains (see CDC: New IRAT Risk Assessment On Mink Variant of Avian H5N1).

But by putting thousands of highly susceptible animals into close quarters (often with poor biosecurity), we are giving H5N1 and SARS-CoV-2 (and other emerging viruses) ample opportunities to adapt to mammals and begin a world tour.

A few past blogs include:

One Health Adv.: Mink Infection With Influenza A Viruses - An Ignored Intermediate Host?

Over the past 3 years the amount of H5N1 in the environment has grown dramatically, making certain practices - like fur farming - far riskier than they used to be, and much harder to justify.

Like it or not, we must either adjust and adapt to this `new normal', or risk something much worse.