Health experts in Hong Kong have defended the government’s decision to kill 2,000 hamsters and other small animals over Covid-19 fears, explaining that the move is in the best interests of public health.

David Hui. Photo: GovHK.

Speaking on an RTHK radio show on Wednesday morning, respiratory disease expert David Hui said the chances of the virus spreading from hamsters to humans is “very high” despite a lack of evidence of animal-to-human transmission internationally since the pandemic began more than two years ago.

“The shopkeepers have to take care of the hamsters and clean their cages. There are many ways in which they could get infected… through droplets and secretions from the hamsters,” he said.

“There’s no way to test each [hamster] individually,” Hui added. “From a public health perspective, you have to euthanise the whole batch.”

Pet shop outbreak

The government said on Tuesday that it would move to kill 2,000 hamsters and other small animals following an untraceable outbreak linked to a Little Boss pet shop employee.

Photo: Andy Holmes via Unsplash

A 23-year-old woman who worked at the shop was confirmed to be carrying the Delta Covid-19 variant on Monday. A woman who visited the shop earlier this month was also infected, and her husband has tested preliminary positive.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) tested 125 samples from 78 animals at the Little Boss branch in Causeway Bay. Eleven of those samples tested positive, all of which had come from hamsters.

Some environmental swabs from the pet shop’s warehouse in Tai Po, where chinchillas, guinea pigs, hamsters and rabbits are kept, also came back positive, the government said.

“It’s likely that the hamsters were infected in the warehouse, and then it spread outside,” Hui said.

Little Boss pet shop in Mong Kok. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP

The infected employee of Little Boss, which has 14 branches under the franchise, had not visited the warehouse in Tai Po.

Hui added that hamsters are often used in lab experiments to research Covid-19 because they can be easily infected.

Doctors ‘respect all life’

Speaking on a Commercial Radio show on Wednesday, leading microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung said it was believed that the hamsters from Little Boss, which were imported from the Netherlands, were either infected by humans there or after arriving in Hong Kong.

“The number of hamsters infected was so high that the virus was able to infect people, and therefore the shopkeeper got infected,” Yuen said.

“Doctors respect all life, but when it comes to fighting the pandemic and public health, you have to make a decision as to what is best for everyone,” he added.

Microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung meeting the press after visiting Yan Shek House. Photo: RTHK, via video screenshot.

Yuen also said that the AFCD does not have the ability or resources to quarantine, care for and test such a large number of hamsters, hence the “unwelcome” decision.

“But at the same time, think about it, this decision wouldn’t need to be made if all Hong Kong people got vaccinated,” he said. More than 70 per cent of the population has received at least two doses of the Covid-19 vaccines available. But fewer than 20 per cent of those aged 80 or above have been double jabbed.

‘Unjust and brutal’

The decision has been largely condemned by the public, with one online petition protesting the culling yielding more than 22,000 signatures by noon on Wednesday.

A petition on change.org urging the government to halt the culling of hamsters. Photo: Change.org

“A pet is an owner’s best friend, and due to the government’s orders, thousands of people could unjustifiably lose their dearest companions,” the petition read. “With your help, we can successfully convince the government that their decision is unjust and brutal, and you could help save dozens of animals in loving homes and happy lives.”

The AFCD “strongly advised” members of the public to surrender hamsters purchased from local pet shops on or after December 22 last year – the date that one of two batches were recently imported by Little Boss – for euthanisation.

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.