Nine hamster samples taken from close to 2,600 small animals seized by Hong Kong’s animal authorities have tested positive for the Covid-19 virus. Visitors to two pet shops in Causeway Bay and Tai Po were required to undergo mandatory virus testing after environmental samples tested positive.

A two-year-old hamster named “Ring” owned by Cheung, a member of an online hamster community who has volunteered to foster abandoned small animals in light of government instructions for pet owners to give up recently purchased hamsters, chinchillas, rabbits and guinea pigs for culling after hamsters in a pet store tested positive for Covid-19, looks on from a cage in Hong Kong on January 19, 2022. Photo: Bertha Wang/AFP.

Health authorities suspected the city’s quickly spiralling Covid-19 outbreak may be linked to hamster shipments from the Netherlands carrying the virus, after five women who visited hamster shops or purchased hamsters between January 4 and 11 became infected.

The World Health Organization has said the risk of animal-to-human transmission is low, whilst low authorities have cited the need to protect public health.

A total of 2,581 small animals were seized from local pet stores during the past week, according to government figures. Authorities also urged pet owners who purchased hamsters after December 22 to surrender them for testing and “humane dispatch,” meaning euthanasia.

The government’s culling call on Tuesday led to a public outcry among pet lovers and animal rights groups, who said at least 50 hamsters were found abandoned in the street by panicking owners in the space of a day.

Tests underway

A spokesperson for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) said in response to an HKFP enquiry that nine samples taken from animals seized from pet shop operators tested positive with Covid-19 as of Friday 4 p.m. The figure is subject to change, the spokesperson said, as tests were still underway.

Three customers and one salesperson at the Little Boss pet shop’s Causeway Bay branch had become sick with the Covid-19 virus as of Friday. During its operation, the AFCD seized 97 small animals from the branch, including hamsters, rabbits and chinchillas. It took 125 samples from 78 small animals – seven samples taken from hamsters tested positive for Covid-19.

It remains unclear how many hamsters these samples referred to, or whether the remaining 19 animals were sampled for Covid-19 testing. All 97 were euthanised.

Animal control authorities also seized 1,116 small animals from Little Boss’s warehouse in Tai Po. They included over 800 hamsters, over 100 rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, albino mice and golden hamsters. The spokesperson said testing was still underway and therefore their results were not finalised.

Meanwhile, 1,299 hamsters were seized from other pet shops across the city. Of those, 49 samples were taken from the Causeway Bay branch of I Love Rabbit, where two hamsters tested positive for the coronavirus. A 30-year-old woman became infected with the coronavirus after she visited the store, which belonged to the same corporation as Little Boss.

Environmental samples taken from the Causeway Bay and Tai Po retail branches of I Love Rabbit tested positive for Covid-19, meaning people who visited the locations between January 7 to 18 are required to undergo virus tests. Staff will be sent to quarantine facilities.

Animal authorities have also taken in 77 hamsters surrendered by pet owners who responded to the government’s call on Tuesday. A total of 113 samples were taken from 71 of them, with testing still underway. Two of the 77 hamsters died naturally when they were surrendered to the AFCD, the spokesperson said, and 69 of them were euthanised.

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.