Coronavirus: 2,000 hamsters to be culled over fears of first animal-to-human transmission in Hong Kong, pet store customers ordered into quarantine

·6-min read

This story has been made freely available as a public service to our readers. Please consider supporting SCMP’s journalism by subscribing.

Hong Kong authorities have asked pet shops and owners to hand over about 2,000 hamsters for a mass cull and temporarily suspended imports of small animals after finding evidence of the first possible animal-to-human transmission of Covid-19 in the city.

Officials on Tuesday also ordered all 34 licensed pet stores that sell hamsters to suspend operations and about 150 customers who had visited the Little Boss shop in Causeway Bay since January 7 to enter quarantine. Pet owners whose hamsters test positive must also be isolated as well.

Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.

While animal welfare groups expressed shock at the “drastic action”, authorities and health experts stressed the risks to public health made the cull necessary. Two people tied to the Little Boss shop have been confirmed as infected and another is listed as a suspected case, while 11 hamsters from the store were categorised as preliminary-positive.

The Little Boss pet shop in Causeway Bay. Photo: Handout
The Little Boss pet shop in Causeway Bay. Photo: Handout

The cull order applies to all hamsters bought in Hong Kong since December 22, when a shipment of the animals arrived from the Netherlands and they were transferred to a Little Boss warehouse in Tai Po. A second shipment arrived on January 7.

“We have assessed the risks of these batches are relatively high and therefore made the decision based on public health needs,” Director of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Dr Leung Siu-fai said.

“We urge all pet owners to observe strict hygiene when handling their pets and cages. Do not kiss [them] or abandon them on the streets.”

Leung said the “strong recommendation” to pet owners to hand over the hamsters was an “administrative decision” and failure to comply would not have legal consequences.

11,000 sign petition calling for stop to Hong Kong hamster cull over Covid-19

The government would decide later whether small animals should be screened before they were shipped to the city and after they arrived, he added.

At the centre of the outbreak is a 23-year-old saleswoman from Little Boss who on Sunday became the first Delta case in Hong Kong in more than three months.

A retiree who visited the shop with her daughter on January 8 was confirmed as infected with Covid-19 on Tuesday. Her husband is preliminary-positive, while the daughter is so far asymptomatic.

Authorities said they believed the case was the first known instance of hamsters contracting Covid-19 outside a laboratory setting.

Staff members of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department outside Little Boss. Photo: Edmond So
Staff members of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department outside Little Boss. Photo: Edmond So

Experts were having trouble mapping some mutations found in the viral sample taken from the sales assistant, government pandemic adviser Professor Yuen Kwok-yung told the Post.

“Some mutations found in that worker’s [sample] could not be identified in a global genomic data bank,” he said. “Experts are concerned whether there are any problems with those mutations … that’s why we need to be extra cautious.”

Gilman Siu Kit-hang, an associate professor at Polytechnic University’s department of health technology and informatics, said the closest genome sequencing match was with a case from the Czech Republic, although there were still seven genetic variations between the two samples.

Officials said the two batches of imported hamsters went to 15 pet shops and Dutch authorities had not reported any outbreaks among the rodents in at least 12 months.

But 17 million farmed minks were culled in Denmark after an outbreak of Covid-19 was discovered in 2020, according to Professor Gabriel Leung, dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of Hong Kong (HKU).

Hong Kong authorities insist pet dog of Covid-19 patient is infected

At least some of the imported hamsters are being kept along with chinchillas and rabbits at the warehouse in Tai Po. AFCD workers took 511 samples from the animals and the results were pending.

Authorities said all small animals collected from Little Boss and the Tai Po warehouse would be tested and then “humanely handled”.

Yuen said it would take time for hamsters to show symptoms after infection and keeping the 2,000 alive could pose health risks to the people looking after them.

“Hamsters are often used to do experiments because they are very sensitive to viruses and are easily infected. They usually release a great amount of virus in the first 10 days after being infected,” he explained, calling the decision to cull the animals “decisive and wise”.

The animals will be tested before being put down, according to health authorities.

Defending the move to cull the hamsters despite no confirmation of animal-to-human transmission, AFCD Assistant Director Dr Thomas Sit Hon-chung said authorities had “no choice” but to make a “firm decision” in order to protect public and animal health.

But the cull has sparked outrage among concern groups, including the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which urged the AFCD to review its approach before taking “drastic action”.

An online petition calling on the government to abandon the cull had attracted 6,800 signatures by 10pm.

The retiree who visited the pet shop was among 18 confirmed Covid-19 cases on Tuesday. Eleven involved close contacts of previous patients, while the other seven were imported.

2 ex-Cathay employees charged over alleged anti-pandemic rule violations

More than 10 preliminary-positive cases were also reported, including a kindergarten teacher, 26, with an unknown source of infection. She lives in Mei Foo Sun Chuen and was last at work at Learning Habitat Kindergarten in Quarry Bay on January 5.

Nine of the people newly confirmed as infected were linked to a woman who tested positive five days after completing her hotel quarantine following her arrival from Pakistan. Two residents at Tung Moon House of Tai Hang Tung Estate where she lived also returned positive tests.

After inspecting the building, Yuen said there was risk of vertical transmission from the flat where the infected woman and her five family members lived to the one directly above it, where a housewife, 42, and her three-year-old daughter resided.

He said the virus could be transmitted through air brought upwards by strong exhaust fans installed in the kitchen and bathroom to the flat above and where the windows were kept open all the time. But he also did not exclude the possibility of transmission through sewage pipes.

Yuen suggested health authorities evacuate residents of unit “14” on each floor of the building, involving up to 30 residents in total.

Additional reporting by Fiona Sun

More from South China Morning Post:

This article Coronavirus: 2,000 hamsters to be culled over fears of first animal-to-human transmission in Hong Kong, pet store customers ordered into quarantine first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2022.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting