I clearly missed the opportunity at the obvious Shakespeare quote for this episode as there are 15 million things rotten in the state of Denmark. They are of course mink carcasses
In this episode we talked about the new strain of coronavirus that appeared in Danish mink, spread to humans, leading to the culling of 15 million of the countries farmed mink and lockdown of roughly 250 000 people. Mink appear to be good hosts for coronavirus mutation too and this isn’t the first time new strains have popped up among them. There is currently no evidence that these strains are more deadly or infectious. The reason are for the immense precautions and strict measures has more to do with vaccines. If the new strain has a mutation in the now famous spike protein, which many vaccines being developed use as the thing they teach the body to recognize, then the vaccines may be less effective or even useless against this strain. None of this is confirmed as we don’t even have a working vaccine yet (although the Pfizer release was certainly a step in the write direction), but the Danish government and others aren’t taking any chances.
Since we recorded an in-depth investigation of 16 known mink farm outbreaks in the Netherlands was published in Science. The investigators used whole genome sequencing to reveal some interesting insights into mink-rona. First, they report that the mink likely got it from us in the first place, your welcome mink. The mink then gave it back after they passed it amongst themselves, no thanks mink. It is probable that there was widespread circulation of the rona among mink for awhile before it was detected. This provides the virus ample opportunity to mutate because mink aren’t built exactly like us so the virus adapts to work better in them, giving rise to the mink strain. There was some indication that the mutation rate, meaning how often a single base pair in the DNA changes, is higher in mink, but that isn’t 100% yet.
The mink-rona detectives also found three big transmission events in the Netherlands despite the strict measures enforced when mink outbreaks were first detected. They aren’t totally sure how this happened though, could be temporary workers moving between farms that weren’t identified and tested, could be moving animals, who knows. Finally, and this is important, they found direct evidence that the mink were indeed giving the strain back to humans. Mink farm workers were getting infected but the larger community in the areas around the farm weren’t. They even looked at some strains in Poland as a lot of the workers on these farms are seasonal and come from Poland to work, but there was no evidence the mink strains had travelled east.
The whole mink situation is interesting/concerning because it shows that these animals could be become a reservoir host. Reservoir hosts are animal populations that can carry disease and transmit it to humans so not ideal to be adding to the list of species that can cause a rona outbreak. It’s interesting from a biology perspective because if it is mutating faster in mink, why? Also, where are in the SARS-2 genome are the mutations occuring? Does the mink immune system exert some kind of specific pressure that causes the virus adapt in a certain way or is it just accumulating mutations at a faster rate? Fascinating stuff.
The other topic we covered this episode was the ethics of paying or compensating people for getting vaccinated. Here is the press release that alerted me to the story and the paper written by philosopher and ethicist Julian Savulescu. Essentially, he argues that if a vaccine is safe enough to roll out for voluntary use, it is ethical to offer incentives to those who get it in order to increase uptake. Honestly, it makes sense to me and if the economics of it work out, meaning if it costs less to pay people to get than it does to deal with the disruptions to business and stimulus needed to deal with a pandemic than I’m in. Savulescu points out that society already does something similar by paying for blood donations. I also saw the same argument being made for paying people to isolate/quarantine after exposure to corona. Again, whatever ends up being cheaper and more effective, I say do it. This does have me shook though because I always going on and on about most people being good and informed etc. The idea that we have to pay people to do the right thing blows a hole in that. It could still be that I am essentially right and this just demonstrates how the actions of a few ruin it for the rest. Also, a shitty reality to come to terms with, but one I find easier to accept.
I’m not going to recap the Nobel stuff we talked about. I figure if you’re interested in that beyond our cursory overview you’ve either already read all about this years awards, or you can do so yourself. These two were the interesting stories I wanted to link to and in the case of mink-rona provide a bit more info with the release of the Science paper.