Ferrets, the weasel-like cousin of minks, were given an experimental COVID-19 vaccine in Colorado last year. The vaccine was administered to endangered black-footed ferrets, which may be vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, as mink farms were being culled in multiple countries. Of particular concern is the risk that the virus may mutate among these animals and spread back to humans.
The ferret vaccination took place in summer 2020, according to the Kaiser Health Network, which notes that vaccinating animals like these helps protect both the species and potentially humans. Viruses like the one behind COVID-19 may originate in animals, spread to other animals, and eventually spread to humans.
Farmed mink have been culled by the millions in multiple countries due to their vulnerability to the novel coronavirus behind the pandemic. Ferrets, which are very similar to mink, may also vulnerable to the virus. The issue is compounded by the cramped, close quarters in which farmed mink are raised, making it easy for a virus to spread among the animals.
The experimental vaccination was given to the endangered ferrets as an injection; 120 animals received the treatment. A variation of the virus linked to farmed mink has been identified in more than 200 humans in Denmark, some of which had a potentially risky mutation.
The vaccination was a protective measure to help protect the black-footed ferrets, which were once thought to be extinct in the US before a tiny population was discovered in Wyoming. In the few decades since, around 400 of these ferrets have been reintroduced to the wild and a few hundred more remain in captivity.
Talking about the experimental vaccination effort, the Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle’s Dr. Corey Casper said to KHN:
For highly contagious respiratory viruses, it’s really important to be mindful of the animal reservoir. If the virus returns to the animal host and mutates, or changes, in such a way that it could be reintroduced to humans, then the humans would no longer have that immunity. That makes me very concerned.