In a northern region of the country where a mutated variation of the coronavirus has infected minks being farmed for their fur, more than a quarter-million Danes went into lockdown on Friday, leading to an order to kill millions of animals.
The move was intended to contain the virus, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said, and it came two days after the government ordered the cull of all 15 million minks bred at 1,139 mink farms in Denmark.
The coronavirus is constantly evolving and there is no evidence to date that any of the mutations pose an increased danger to individuals. But the Danish authorities took no chances.
"It's better to act quickly instead of waiting for evidence," said Tyra Grove Krause, head of the department at the Statens Serum Institute, a government agency that maps Denmark's coronavirus spread.
Sport and cultural activities were suspended, public transport was stopped and regional borders were closed in seven northern Danish municipalities with some 280,000 residents. Only people with so-called "critical functions" are authorized to cross municipal boundaries, such as police and health officials and various authorities.
In the region, people have been urged to be tested. Restaurants will close on Saturday, and school students will switch to remote learning on Monday from fifth grade and up.
"This virus variant must be completely knocked down," Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said Thursday, adding that 12 individuals had been found to have the mutated virus.
Last month, after COVID-19 infections were reported among the stocks there, Denmark began culling millions of minks in the north of the country. At least 216 out of the 1,139 fur farms in Denmark have now been infected nationwide.
Kaare Moelbak of the Statens Serum Institute indicated that the virus variant had been registered in August and September and that no mutations had been detected since then, so it was not known whether it still existed. According to the government agency, the mutated virus was discovered in five mink farms.
WHO officials said that to determine whether any of the changes mean that the virus behaves differently, each case needs to be evaluated.
"We are a long, long way away from making any such determination," said Mike Ryan, head of emergencies at the WHO. He said that in viruses, such mutations happen all of the time.
"Right now, the evidence we have does not indicate that this variant differs in any way in the way it acts," he said in Geneva.
WHO food safety expert Peter Ben Embarek said initial studies on pigs, chickens, and cattle "show that these species are not at all susceptible in the same way as, for instance, minks." So they would not be able to sustain and spread the disease in the same way, even if these animals were infected.
On Friday, Britain said that for 14 days, people from Denmark must self-isolate, adding the country to a list of countries it considers risky.
A mutation of the virus was found in 12 people infected with minks, which farmers were ordered to kill en masse, the Danish government said, but experts said that the significance of any variant strain and its effect on humans was unclear because it had yet to be studied.
An estimated 17 million furs per year are produced by Denmark, the world's largest exporter of mink fur. The cooperative of 1,500 Danish breeders, Kopenhagen Fur, accounts for 40 percent of global mink production. Most of its exports go to Hong Kong and China.
The mink pelts will be destroyed and the cull, which is estimated to cost up to 5 billion kroner ($785 million), may mark the end of the country's industry, Danish fur farmers have said.
Overall, 53,180 coronavirus cases and 738 deaths have been reported in Denmark.