Exclusive: 'Mink virus' alert as hospitals ordered to keep suspected cases in isolation

Bill Gardner
·4 min read
A worker at a mink farm in Denmark, which is culling thousands of the animals following the discovery of a new virus strain - Mads Claus Rasmussen/AFP
A worker at a mink farm in Denmark, which is culling thousands of the animals following the discovery of a new virus strain - Mads Claus Rasmussen/AFP

Every hospital in the country has been ordered to isolate suspected "mink virus" patients amid increasing efforts to prevent a mutant strain of Covid from spreading to Britain.

Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, has told doctors, nurses and GPs to take "immediate action" against a new strain of the virus feared to be resistant to vaccines.

In a letter circulated to health chiefs, co-signed by the NHS medical director, Professor Steve Powis, hospitals have been told that any coronavirus patients who recently travelled to Denmark must be isolated, treated in specialist centres and gene tested for the new strain

The measures are similar to those taken in early March, when the Government tried to prevent Covid from spreading into the UK from China and mainland Europe.

Meanwhile, vets in Denmark began the grim task of gassing and burning 17 million mink in a bid to halt further spread of the "cluster five" mutation, so far detected in 12 people after jumping from the animals to humans.

Mink across Denmark will be culled following the discovery of the virus mutation - Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix via AP
Mink across Denmark will be culled following the discovery of the virus mutation - Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix via AP

Over the weekend, the UK banned entry to all non-resident foreigners coming from Denmark, while UK citizens, along with their household, must isolate for 14 days. Passenger planes, ships and lorries carrying freight from Denmark will also not be allowed across the border, it was announced on Sunday, threatening the UK's supplies of pork and bacon.

In the NHS alert, seen by The Telegraph, hospitals and GPs are warned that the new virus strain appears to show "less sensitivity for neutralising antibodies" and therefore greater resistance to a vaccine.

The letter says any person who travelled to Denmark within the last two weeks must not be offered "routine outpatient, ambulatory or primary care" during their isolation period, while non-urgent procedures should be delayed. 

Anyone who needs urgent hospital treatment should be separated from other patients and "managed in strict isolation in a single room with en-suite bathroom facilities". If the person subsequently tests positive for Covid, they should immediately be transferred to a "specialised infectious diseases centre" for further treatment. 

Positive samples must be sent to Public Health England's main laboratory in Colindale for "whole genome sequencing", the letter adds.

The Department for Health and Social Care estimates that between 300 and 500 people have arrived in the UK from Denmark in the last 14 days.

The letter outlines steps that should be taken by hospitals
The letter outlines steps that should be taken by hospitals

Denmark was the first to record the new mutation, described as the "cluster five variant" by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and has reported 214 human cases of Covid linked to mink farms, of which 12 are thought to be "cluster five". Four were found in the local community rather than on farms, suggesting human-to-human transmission.

New coronavirus cases linked to mink farms have been discovered in six countries including Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, the WHO has said. Mink farming in Britain ended in the early 2000s, although there are thought to be around 112,00 of the animals in the wild.

Professor Fiona Mathews, who chairs the Mammal Society and is a professor of environmental biology at the University of Sussex, urged the Government to fund a study into whether the virus might already be spreading in the UK's mink population.

"There's a chance it might have jumped to cousins of the mink, like otters," she said. "We know the virus came from animals, so it would be foolish not to look at whether it is already here. And of course there's a small chance that it might pose a risk to humans."

Danish authorities have revealed that the mutated coronavirus has not been found in humans since September.

"Either it is in circulation without us having discovered it… or otherwise it may have died out," said Tyra Grove Krause, the head of department at the Statens Serum Institut.

Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, denied that the Denmark travel ban and restrictions on trade were "draconian".

"I wouldn't describe it as draconian taking a precautionary measure that if and when we come up with a vaccine it can't be sidestepped by a mutation in the virus that the Danes have found through their mink population," he told the BBC. "I think that's a common sense measure that the public would expect us to take."

A further 156 people have died after testing positive for Covid in the UK, the Government said on Sunday. It brings the UK death toll to 49,044, while a further 20,572 positive cases of coronavirus have been recorded.