Hong Kong kills 2,000 small animals after hamsters were blamed for COVID outbreak in a closed city

Staff from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation are investigating in a pet store closed after some pet hamster authorities said they had been tested positive for coronavirus, in Hong Kong on 18 January.Kin Cheung / The Associated Press

Authorities in Hong Kong will kill about 2,000 hamsters and other small animals after a minor COVID-19 outbreak was linked to a pet store in the city.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Hong Kong Food and Health Minister Sophia Chan said preliminary tests had yielded positive results for a number of animals at the Little Boss pet store in Causeway Bay after a 23-year-old employee tested positive for Delta variant on Sunday.

It was the first untraceable Delta infection in three months, raising concerns that the employee may have been infected by the animals she handled. A handful of other cases have since been linked to the pet store, and these people and their close contacts have been quarantined under Hong Kong’s strict COVID rules.

Edwin Tsui of the Center for Health Protection said the government does not rule out transmission from animals to humans, although no such confirmed cases have been found globally to date. SARS-CoV-2, the scientific name for coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is thought to have originated in bats and potentially spread to humans via a third species.

Of the 178 hamsters, rabbits and chinchillas at Little Boss that have been tested, 11 hamsters tested positive so far, said Leung Siu-fai, director of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation (AFCD). Results from a further 511 samples from a warehouse attached to the pet store are still awaiting.

Mr. Leung said all animals associated with Little Boss will be killed “humanely”, as will hamsters from other pet stores in the city, about 2,000 animals in total. Anyone who has purchased a hamster since Dec. 22 is advised “strongly” to hand over their pets for “humane treatment,” he added, while imports of the animals will be halted.

“We encourage all pet owners to adhere to strict hygiene when handling their pets and cages,” said Mr. Leung. “Do not kiss or leave them on the street.”

Thomas Sit, deputy AFCD chief, said that although there was no research showing hamsters could transmit COVID to humans, the decision had been made to kill them. “We do not want to kill all the animals, but we have to protect public health and animal health, we have no choice, we have to make a firm decision,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) said the organization was “shocked and concerned about the latest announcement”, which “did not take animal welfare” into account.

“The SPCA hopes the AFCD will not take any drastic action before reviewing its approach,” they said.

The proposal that hamsters may be responsible for the spread of coronavirus in Hong Kong comes after Chinese authorities blamed an outbreak of Omicron in the capital Beijing on mail from Canada, a claim rejected as “comic” by the Conservative leader Erin O’Toole. Chinese health officials have previously accused frozen goods from abroad of bringing coronavirus into the country, though most researchers do not believe it can be transmitted this way.

Earlier Tuesday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said the government was “very concerned” about the pet trade cluster.

In response to fears of a new coronavirus wave driven by the more contagious Omicron variant, Hong Kong has recently increased restrictions, including closing bars and gyms and banning indoor dining at after-hours restaurants. The city has been pursuing a strict “zero COVID” approach since early 2020, which keeps the number of cases low but requires Hong Kong – formerly one of Asia’s most important business and transport hubs – to be largely cut off from the rest of the The world.

Even with the recent rise, Hong Kong still has only a small number of cases, with less than 200 registered since January. The number of cases in the city itself is even smaller, as the vast majority of those discovered were at immigration, where the travelers were then immediately quarantined.

A vaccination rate that is one of the lowest among developed economies, as well as the need to stick to China’s own “zero COVID” protocols, has seen Hong Kong officials stick to their harsh approach, although companies have warned , that they can leave the city if quarantine restrictions remain in force while the rest of Asia continues to open up. Since Omicron began to spread around the world, flights from several destinations, including Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, have been banned from Hong Kong.

Strict quarantine rules have also caused chaos in Penny’s Bay, the government-run camp where close contacts of COVID cases are sent. The recent influx has seen camp staff struggle to process paperwork in a timely manner, resulting in people being detained for a day or more after they were to be released.

Last week, the quarantine was cut from 21 days to 14, something medical experts have long recommended. Two of those who benefited were Hong Kong Interior Minister Caspar Tsui and Director of Immigration Au Ka-wang, who had been quarantined after a guest at a birthday party they attended tested positive for Omicron. The couple was released Monday.

The cases in connection with the party – where about 200 guests celebrated with Witman Hung, a delegate to China’s National People’s Congress – caused widespread outrage in Hong Kong, as health authorities had advised people to avoid mass gatherings. There were widespread calls, including from figures linked to Beijing, for implicated government officials to resign or be fired, especially after it emerged that some may have broken COVID tracking protocols. So far no one was able to send in the perfect solution, which is not strange.

Some of those involved tried to pass the blame on to Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flag carrier, after two of its flight attendants were accused of spreading the Omicron to the city. Both men, who have been fired by Cathay after violating home isolation rules upon returning from the U.S., were arrested Monday and charged with violating COVID rules, police said.

If convicted, they could face up to six months in prison.

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