Hong Kong has ordered thousands of hamsters be surrendered for “disposal” after traces of Covid-19 were found on 11 animals in a pet shop.
The order includes pets that were bought days before Christmas be handed over, with a warning not to “kiss or abandon them on the street” as Hong Kong and mainland China attempt to sustain a zero Covid strategy, attempting to suppress all outbreaks internally while maintaining tight border controls with the outside world.
Authorities announced on Tuesday that traces of the virus were detected on 11 hamsters out of 178 hamsters, rabbits and chinchillas tested at the Little Boss pet shop and associated warehouse in Causeway Bay while investigating the city’s first untraceable Delta variant diagnosis in more than three months, in a 23-year-old store employee.
Two employees were also confirmed to have the disease, including one who cleans out the animal cages and handles the hamsters.
In response, they ordered the immediate suspension of hamster sales and imports of all rodents. An estimated 2,000 hamsters, including any bought since 22 December, must be handed over, local media reported, and the owners must report for testing.
Hong Kong’s health secretary, Sophia Chan, conceded there was no evidence domestic animals can pass the disease to humans, but authorities were acting out of caution.
“We have assessed the risks of these batches are relatively high and therefore made the decision based on public health needs,” the 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 or abandon them on the streets.”
All animals taken from the Causeway Bay shop would be dealt with “humanely”, authorities said.
Louis Yeung, at the Chinchilla and Pets shop on Hong Kong island, said he had about 20 hamsters in stock and was waiting for instructions.
“A man called me and asked my phone number and said he will send a message to me, but so far I don’t have any information from [the government],” he told the Guardian. “We just follow the government instructions. There’s nothing to do, worry or not worry. If they decide something we must do it.”
Leung said he was surprised to hear hamsters could get infected and was also worried by reports of virus transmission on food packaging.
“I don’t really understand what we should do. I don’t really know if the human takes this [virus] to a hamster or the hamster takes this to the human.”
The imported hamster theory comes a day after Chinese authorities, who are similarly battling outbreaks while pursuing a zero Covid strategy, blamed an untraceable case of the Omicron variant in Beijing on a package sent from Canada, via the US and Hong Kong.
While the global science community is sceptical on the likelihood of Covid-19 spreading by international mail, at least at the frequency it is reported in China, Beijing authorities said testing had found traces of the virus on the outside and inside of the package.
There have been previous cases of animal infection, including several pets in Hong Kong, over the course of the pandemic. In 2020, Denmark culled its entire population of 15 million minks after some were found to be carrying a mutated variant of Covid-19.
It also banned mink breeding until this month. Several thousand carcasses that had been hastily buried in West Jutland began rising out of the earth months later, prompting alarm and a police operation to rebury the animals at the macabre scene.
It appears it was known hamsters could be infected with the disease – a May 2020 study by leading Hong Kong infectious disease experts used the animals to determine the effectiveness of mask-wearing, by lining some hamster cages with them and measuring the transmission between infected animals and their health neighbours.