Hong Kong authorities plan to cull around 2,000 small animals after a pet store worker and several imported hamsters tested positive for COVID-19, according to a report by The Associated Press.
On Monday, the pet store employee tested positive and was found to be infected with the delta variant of the coronavirus. Several of the store’s hamsters, recently imported from the Netherlands, also tested positive. The city, meanwhile, is grappling with an outbreak of COVID-19 cases caused by the omicron variant.
It is unclear whether the pet store cases are related and, if so, whether the employee was infected by the hamsters or vice versa. But Hong Kong authorities say they cannot rule out the possibility that the hamsters transmitted the virus to the employee. As such, they take no risks.
The ravages of hamsters
Authorities have halted all sales of hamsters in the city as well as the import of hamsters and other small animals, such as chinchillas. About 2,000 small animals already present in Hong Kong will be humanely slaughtered to prevent transmission of the pandemic virus.
Meanwhile, people who have purchased pet hamsters in the city since Dec. 22 are to be tested. If their pets test positive, they should be quarantined.
At a press conference, Hong Kong health official Leung Siu-fai advised, “If you own a hamster, you should keep your hamsters at home, don’t take them out. All pet owners Animals should observe good personal hygiene, and after contact with animals and their food, you should wash your hands. He also advised owners to “not kiss your pets”.
At a press briefing on Tuesday, World Health Organization officials addressed the hamster cases, saying “the risk remains low” of the animals being infected by people and then transmitting the virus to people at home. significant rates.
“But this is something we are constantly looking at,” Maria Van Kerkhove, technical officer for COVID-19 at WHO, said during the briefing. As the virus circulates, it can continue to infect people and animals, “so that’s something we need better surveillance on.”
It is already clear that many animal species can be infected with SARS-CoV-2 and potentially serve as a reservoir for variants that could threaten to revert to humans at any time. In 2020, the Danish government took the controversial decision to cull 17 million mink after the farm animals were found to harbor a variant of SARS-CoV-2.
In the United States, several studies have documented widespread transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in wild deer populations, as well as farmed mink. Pets, such as dogs and cats, are known to be at risk of contracting COVID-19 from their owners. Some zoo animals are also at risk.
For now, health officials are focusing more on the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 between people. But there are serious concerns about animal reservoirs, especially amid the rise of omicron. The ultra-transmissible variant quickly sparked concern among experts as it first emerged with a surprisingly high number of mutations, many of which had never before been observed in variants known to circulate in humans.
Omicron’s sudden appearance raised concerns – and speculation – that the variant came from an animal reservoir, specifically mice. Humans are believed to have spread SARS-CoV-2 to wild mice, which then circulated the virus for some time. There, the virus adapted to its new host and acquired a variety of new mutations before reverting to humans.
For now, this is only a hypothesis – and not necessarily the main one. Many researchers say that a more likely explanation for the origin of the omicron is an immunocompromised person. In this scenario, an immunocompromised person may have harbored an infection for a long time. This gave the virus enough time to be exposed to various weak immune responses and adapt to avoid them, becoming a more dangerous enemy for all humans. Such prolonged infections in immunocompromised people are the main hypotheses for the development of new variants in general.
But the latest concerns about pet hamsters should keep some focus on the potential threat from animal reservoirs of the pandemic virus.