HONG KONG -- Hong Kong has asked pet shops and owners to hand over close to 2,000 hamsters for culling by authorities, after 11 of the small rodents tested positive for the coronavirus in a pet shop. The territory has also suspended the import of small animals.
Authorities announced the decision Tuesday after the city's health experts found two groups of hamsters, which originated in the Netherlands and arrived in Hong Kong on Dec. 22 and Jan. 7, to be "high-risk" for carrying the novel coronavirus. The hamsters turned over by pet owners will be killed to "cut the transmission chain," health officials said.
"Evidence shows that the hamsters are infected with the covid-19 virus. It is impossible to quarantine and observe each of them and their incubation period could be long," said Leung Siu-fai, the director of Hong Kong's Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.
The role of pets in coronavirus transmission has been studied and debated since the start of the pandemic, but for the most part, infection appears to be a one-way street, with animals catching the virus from their owners and generally recovering quickly.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the risk of animals spreading the virus to people "low" but noted that it "can spread from people to animals during close contact." The exception appears to be minks, with cases of humans being infected by them.
In 2020, Denmark culled some 17 million commercially raised minks after they were found to be at risk of carrying the coronavirus. The government later admitted that the minks were improperly killed and buried, and a commission has been established to look into the case.
In cramped Hong Kong, hamsters have been popular as cute and low-maintenance pets.
The city, like mainland China, is holding firm to a policy of "zero covid," imposing extreme, 21-day quarantine requirements on anyone arriving from overseas. The territory was able to maintain zero local infections for weeks until December, when two flight attendants returning from the United States who were infected with the highly transmissible omicron variant went out into the community.
Last week, a 23-year-old woman working at a pet shop called Little Boss in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay was found to be infected with the delta variant, which has been rare in the city. At the same time, several hamsters in the pet shop also tested positive for the coronavirus. Health officials in Hong Kong are investigating this as a possible case of animal-to-human transmission because two other human infections, one confirmed and one preliminary, have been linked to the pet store.
Thomas Sit, a veterinarian and assistant director of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, said that the government did not want to cull all the hamsters but that it was a public health decision.
"You need to realize that the hamsters [which] have already got infected are excreting the virus; they can infect other animals, other hamsters and human beings," Sit said. "We have to protect public health, and we have no choice."
Sit added that if investigations found the hamsters were infected during importation, special testing of hamsters would be added before future imports, and the government would gauge other risks for other animals later.
Health authorities have ordered the closure of all pet shops selling hamsters as well as the mandatory testing of anyone who has bought a hamster since Dec. 22.
"We urge all pet owners to observe strict hygiene when handling their pets and cages. Do not kiss or abandon them on the streets," Leung said.
Animal concern groups immediately expressed outrage at the government's decision. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Hong Kong said in a Facebook post that it was "shocked and concerned" about the announcement ... which did not take animal welfare and human-animal bonds into consideration."
Speaking to the local daily the Standard, Sophia Chan, a representative of a hamster concern group, said she has received dozens of calls from hamster owners since the government's announcement.
Owners told Chan that their relatives were threatening to turn the pets over to the authorities. One hamster owner said that after her family dumped her hamster in their building's garbage room without telling her, "she had searched through every bag of garbage and still couldn't locate her pet," Chan said.
Hong Kong's government has responded to the most recent coronavirus wave by imposing some of the strictest social distancing and isolation measures adopted since the start of the pandemic here two years ago. Flights from eight countries including the United States and Britain and transit flights from 150 countries are banned, and students have returned to remote learning at home.