Second wave of coronavirus hits Europe, plus there's a mutant strain in Denmark that could impact vaccine effectiveness

The second wave of the coronavirus is hitting the Unites States right now but it’s also exploding across Europe. Today the Washington Post reports that Italians were feeling good about themselves and feeling pity for the U.S. and now that the second wave it hitting Italy, their per capita numbers are worse than ours:


After being so devastated by the coronavirus in the spring, Italians saw the ability to reclaim aspects of normal life as a matter of national pride.

They flocked to outdoor cafes and reserved spots at the beach. They put on their masks, resumed using public transportation and returned to their offices. They relished in having successfully brought the virus in check — and pitied Americans for failing to do so. Italy’s worst-to-first pandemic rebound seemed to offer a model for the world.

But now that Italy has been caught up in Europe’s second wave, startled by the virus once more, pride has given way to recriminations and a crisis of confidence. There’s a growing sense that the country and the continent misplayed their second chance…

Italy is now among more than two dozen countries in Europe that are faring worse than the United States, with more per capita cases and deaths. Several European nations have returned to shutdown mode. Italy has instituted a nationwide curfew and sealed off several major regions — the kind of economy-wrecking measures it had hoped were over.

Germany, another place where the pandemic response was widely praised is also struggling and announced a record number of new cases today:

Germany followed several European countries by reporting a record number of daily coronavirus cases on Saturday, as a second wave of infections sweeps through the continent as winter approaches.

…the national disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, reported 23,399 new cases between Friday and Saturday, a daily record for the country…
This increase came despite bars, gyms and theaters being shut since Monday, under measures agreed between Merkel and the heads of regional governments. However, schools will stay open and shops will be allowed to operate with limits.

“The light at the end of the tunnel is still quite a long way off,” Merkel told a news conference after the measures were introduced.


In France, things are even worse than in Germany, with two record-setting days of new cases in a row:

France registered a record 60,486 new confirmed coronavirus cases on Friday, after posting a record 58,046 on Thursday, health ministry data showed.

The new cases took the total number of confirmed cases to 1.66 million, close behind Russia, which, with 1.73 million cases has the world’s fourth-largest number after the U.S., India and Brazil.

Belgium has the worst per capita infection rate in Europe and is in danger of overwhelming its health system:

Belgium, where the main EU institutions are based, is experiencing some of the highest Covid-19 daily infections in Europe. When adjusted for population, the figures are twice as much as France and seven times more than Germany over the last two weeks, data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control shows.

In late October, the country’s health minister, Frank Vandenbroucke, described the situation as being like a “tsunami” of infections where the authorities are “no longer in control.”

The UK has just launched what is being called Lockdown 2.0 is already being judged too lax by some observers:

The latest shutdown — under which pubs, restaurants and other nonessential shops were supposed to close, but schools, universities and many workplaces were left open — is slated to end on Dec. 2. But many scientists doubt that four weeks of spotty restrictions will be enough to stamp out the virus, or that the government will have done enough by then to revamp its contact tracing system to allow officials to keep track of the virus’s spread for the rest of the winter.


Meanwhile, there’s a potentially serious development happening in Denmark. The virus has infected mink, which are farmed for their pelts, and now several mutant strains have been identified from the mink. The situation is serious enough that Denmark has ordered mink farmers to slaughter all 17 million of the animals in the entire country (which is about triple the number of humans in Denmark):

According to a report in the Danish newspaper Berlingske, 207 mink farms have seen infections of coronavirus. The authorities have failed to contain the virus, and all 17 million farmed mink in Denmark will now be culled, said Denmark’s prime minister Mette Frederiksen at a press briefing on 5 November. Denmark has the world’s largest mink industry…

The State Serum Institute issued a statement (in Danish) confirming that multiple mutant viruses have been isolated from mink, and that seven of these have mutations in the spike protein, which the virus uses to enter cells and which is important to the immune response and a key target for vaccines.

One of these viruses has four mutations in its spike protein, and in laboratory tests has been found to be more weakly inhibited by antibodies from humans who have been infected with the coronavirus. This could in theory make a vaccine less effective. But the virus itself in not more dangerous or contagious.

You probably recall lots of early speculation that the coronavirus came from a type of Chinese bat and transferred to humans through an intermediary mammal, possibly a pangolin or a cane rat. Whatever the case, the point is that this virus can pass between different mammals. In fact, Slate points out it has spread to 50 other species but in most cases those animals don’t transmit it back. Minks are different. They are not only capable of catching it from humans, they are capable of passing it back to us in mutated form:


Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 50 animal species have tested positive for the dominant strain of SARS-CoV-2. When news broke in April that several domestic dogs and cats had tested positive, there were no calls for mass euthanasia of house pets. Spread to wild animals—tigers, bats, and great apes to name a few—has also been documented, but at no point did epidemiologists recommend such dramatic intervention to stop the spread in those species, several of which are endangered. The case of the Danish minks, however, is different. Other animal species that have caught the coronavirus from people were infected with the dominant strain of the virus, the one that’s been making headlines for the better part of the past year. Additionally, most of those species turned out to be dead-end hosts for the virus, meaning that although the virus could infect those animals, and even cause disease in those animals, the virus was unable to turn around and jump from animal to human, a phenomenon called zoonosis.

Minks are an exception to this rule. The European mink industry has been battling outbreaks of the dominant strain of COVID on farms since June, after a rash of COVID-19 cases in people in northern Denmark was ultimately traced back to those farms. Once it became clear that the animals themselves were the source of the infections, minks were slaughtered en masse on farms where these outbreaks had taken place. The Netherlands culled more than 10,000 after coronavirus outbreaks this summer. Officials in Spain slaughtered almost 10 times as many after an outbreak occurred at a farm in the Aragón province. Those minks were contracting and spreading the dominant strain of the coronavirus, the one we all know and dread.

The development this week is the discovery that minks in Denmark are now testing positive for a mutant strain of the virus that is not readily destroyed by COVID antibodies.


Again, this isn’t a new super-strain and it won’t make you any sicker than the existing strain. However, Mink-COVID or whatever they end up calling it appears to be less susceptible to the vaccines now under development. Obviously a vaccine is no good if there’s a separate strain of the virus that isn’t effectively stopped by it. You might knock down the old strain only to have the new one spread in its place.

It’s a potential disaster. The situation is serious enough that the UK has banned travel from Denmark. Hopefully other countries will do the same to ensure that this doesn’t get out.

If there’s one thing we’ve all learned from 2020 it’s that however bad things look, they can always get worse. The mink situation in Denmark is the latest proof of that.

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