According to new research, mink farms could be a breeding ground for future human pandemics.
This is because three crucial genes required to identify and respond to pathogen infection have been lost in mink and other carnivorous (meat-eating) animals.
If these genes were active, they would trigger inflammatory responses to combat disease-causing microbes.
However, because of this flaw in carnivore immune systems, these animals are more prone to be asymptomatic disease carriers.
“We’ve found that a whole cohort of inflammatory genes is missing in carnivores — we didn’t expect this at all,” said senior study author Clare Bryant, a professor in the Departments of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge in England.
“We think that the lack of these functioning genes contributes to the ability of pathogens to hide undetected in carnivores, to potentially mutate and be transmitted, becoming a human health risk,” she added in a university news release.
“When you have a large population of farmed carnivorous animals, like mink, they can harbor a pathogen — like [COVID-19] and others — and it can mutate because the immune system of the mink isn’t being activated. This could potentially spread into humans,” Bryant explained.
The COVID-19 pandemic is believed to have originated in wild animals.
Carnivores — which include dogs and cats — are the biggest carriers of zoonotic pathogens, which can jump from animals to humans.
Despite the findings, there is no reason for people to be concerned about dogs and cats spreading COVID-19 because there is no evidence that these pets carry or transmit the coronavirus, the researchers said.
The threat of disease transmission to people only occurs when large numbers of carnivores are kept together in close proximity, the authors noted.
The findings were published this week in the journal Cell Reports.
More informationThe U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on zoonotic diseases.
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