SIX countries have reported coronavirus outbreaks linked to mink farms after a mutant strain was found in Denmark.
The US, Spain, Italy, Sweden and The Netherlands have found Covid cases in minks after the initial outbreaks in Denmark, the World Health Organisation has confirmed.
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The WHO said a Covid mutation spreading from mink to humans is a "concern", but stressed it is still to early to know if this will impact a potential vaccine.
It added the virus variant in Denmark – known as 'Cluster 5' – has "moderately decreased sensitivity to neutralising antibodies".
The WHO said in a statement: "Initial observations suggest that the clinical presentation, severity and transmission among those infected are similar to that of other circulating SARS-CoV-2 viruses.
"However, this variant, referred to as the "cluster 5" variant, had a combination of mutations, or changes that have not been previously observed.
"The implications of the identified changes in this variant are not yet well understood.
"Preliminary findings indicate that this particular mink-associated variant identified in both minks and the 12 human cases has moderately decreased sensitivity to neutralising antibodies."
The WHO called for more studies to understand how the outbreaks could impact on "diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines in development".
Their statement added: "Although the virus is believed to be ancestrally linked to bats, its origin and intermediate host(s) of SARS-CoV-2 have not yet been identified."
Maria van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead for Covid-19, said that transmission between animals and human was a "concern" but added that mutations in viruses are normal.
She said: "These type of changes in the virus are something we have been tracking since the beginning."
The WHO's chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, said it is early to jump to conclusions and that at the moment there is no evidence the outbreaks could impact on vaccine efficacy.
Following the outbreaks, travellers from Denmark have been barred from entering the UK after wide-scale outbreaks of a new strain of Covid-19 at mink factories.
The development – a "virologist's worst nightmare" – has resulted in the first-ever travel ban implemented by Britain during the pandemic.
It comes after health officials say the new strain shows decreased sensitivity against antibodies, potentially lowering the efficacy of future vaccines.
A genetically stable virus – as has been the case so far – is a steady target for scientists working to develop a jab. But the news from Denmark and the other five countries could change the goal posts for experts.
Downing Street had already taken action to remove Denmark from the travel corridor, forcing arrivals to isolate for two weeks from Friday at 4am.
But following a Covid committee meeting on Friday afternoon, No10 now has banned all non-British national or resident travellers who have been in or transited through Denmark in the past 14 days.
Throughout the pandemic, officials have warned against all but essential travel to countries with rising cases.
Initially, quarantine measures were put in place for people arriving to the UK from early hotspots China and Italy.
However, this is the first time an outright ban has been announced.
Brits in Denmark are allowed to return, and the first flight affected – British Airways flight 811 from Copenhagen – touched down at Heathrow shortly before 8am on Saturday.
But all travellers who have been to the country in the past fortnight – as well as all members of their household – must now isolate for 14 days.
Meanwhile, NHS test and trace will prioritise contacting all those who have recently returned.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said on Twitter: “This decision to act quickly follows on from health authorities in Denmark reporting widespread outbreaks of coronavirus in mink farms.
"Keeping the UK public safe remains our top priority.”
England's chief medical officer Chris Whitty is understood to be particularly worried about the situation in Denmark.
Authorities in the country recently found a mutated form of coronavirus that can pass to humans in mink farms.
Millions of the animals are to be slaughtered after the strain was discovered at more than 200 Danish mink farms.
And it's sparked a fresh lockdown in parts of the country, where bars, restaurants, public transport and all public indoor sports will be closed in seven North Jutland municipalities.
The restrictions will come into effect from today and initially last for a month – until December 3.
The World Health Organisation said mink appear to be "good reservoirs" of coronavirus.
Around five new strains of the virus have been found – and at least 12 people were infected with the virus as a direct result so far.
Despite that, officials believe the situation could be much worse than they already know.
Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said about half of the 783 human cases reported in north Denmark related to a strain of the virus that originated in the mink farms.
And the country's prime minister Mette Frederiksen said there were now fears that the new, mutated virus posed a "risk to the effectiveness" of a future vaccine.
"It is very, very serious," she added.
"The mutated virus in mink can have devastating consequences worldwide.
“We have a great responsibility towards our own population, but with the mutation that has now been found, we have an even greater responsibility for the rest of the world as well."
Denmark is one of the world's main mink fur exporters – producing millions of furs per year.
Police said the culling of the 15 million mink should happen as soon as possible and would cost the nation around £600m.
A spokeswoman from the Department for Transport said: “Unlike other travel to the UK, there will be no exemptions to this quarantine policy.
“The UK Government is working closely with international partners to understand the changes in the virus that have been reported in Denmark and we are conducting a programme of further research here in the UK to inform our risk assessments.”
Under England's new national lockdown, all international travel is prohibited – unless it's for business.
Anyone going on a break away faces a £200 fine for doing so, it was revealed this week.
The decision comes after Germany and Sweden were chucked off the travel corridor list too, forcing anyone returning to isolate for two weeks.
Ministers are poised to slash this with a new testing routine, but it's not set to be in place for weeks to come.
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