Hong Kong's hamster culling amid COVID-19 fears has little impact on mainland China's pet stores

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 20 2022 01:09 PM

Despite alarm in Hong Kong over hamsters from a pet store testing positive for Covid-19, there has been little impact on the pet business in mainland China.

This comes as the World Health Organization said the risk of animals reinfecting humans with Sars-CoV-2, the coronavirus behind Covid-19, remained low.

“We understand there are a number of species that can be infected with Sars-CoV-2. There’s the possibility [of] a reverse zoonosis [that] goes from humans back to animals, and then it’s possible for the animals to reinfect humans. That risk remains low,” the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove, told a virtual media briefing on Tuesday.

“But it is something that we are constantly looking at because, what we don’t want … [is that the virus] has the opportunity to infect people as well as animals,” Van Kerkhove said in response to a query about hamsters being culled over Covid-19 fears.

Better global surveillance was needed to understand which animals were susceptible and to track infections in animals over time, she added.

Hong Kong on Tuesday decided to cull thousands of hamsters over fears of the first animal-to-human coronavirus transmission in the city. Pet owners and shops have been asked to hand over some 2,000 hamsters imported in two batches since December 22. Officials said the animals would be tested before being put down.

The cull order came after 11 samples taken from hamsters in a pet store in the commercial district of Causeway Bay came back positive. A shopkeeper and a customer were infected with the Delta variant.

But across the border, it was business as usual. As of Wednesday, hamsters were still being sold at the Shenzhen-based Rabbit Mall shop, affiliated to Hong Kong-based franchise Pet-Link.

A member of staff said the situation in Hong Kong did not have much impact, because all hamsters being sold in the Shenzhen shop were locally bred. The infected hamsters at the Hong Kong pet store were imported.

“Those imported hamsters are quite expensive, and [are bought] only if you want to pursue those top-quality, famous breeds,” she said.

Shops on e-commerce platform Taobao, owned by the Post’s parent company Alibaba, also continued to sell hamsters.

The Post checked with at least 10 shops listed on the platform selling breeds including the popular Syrian hamster, all of which indicated that their hamsters were bred domestically and not imported.

One shop owner interviewed guaranteed that “all [our] hamsters are safe and healthy”.

Shenzhen’s local hamster forum on Baidu, a mainland Chinese search engine, had no posts discussing the mass cull of hamsters in Hong Kong.

The news also hardly made a splash on Twitter-like Weibo, with only a few mainland net users commenting on it. Some feared the finding might lead to a cull of cats and dogs, while others supported the hamster cull, saying human lives took precedence when it came to pandemic prevention.

China Customs and the Ministry of Agriculture did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, more than 25,000 people signed a petition calling on authorities to stop the cull, while a local animal welfare group said it had been flooded with calls asking for information about abandoning hamsters.

The WHO’s Van Kerkhove said that the global health body works with scientists and partner agencies specialising in animal health, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Organisation for Animal Health, to study animals’ susceptibility to the virus “across a wide variety of species”.

“This is done looking at experimental infection as well as natural infection that’s detected in wildlife and domestic species,” she said.

Around 1,500 out of 7 million sequences of the Sars-CoV-2 virus shared by international scientists were from animals, which could help researchers understand the extent of infection in animals and its risks, Van Kerkhove added.

While this coronavirus spreads primarily between humans, animal-to-human transmission has been documented in the case of minks, according to the WHO.

However, it said minks and other animals such as dogs, domestic cats, lions, tigers and raccoon dogs had also tested positive for the virus after contact with infected humans.

Denmark in November 2020 ordered a mass cull of all its farmed mink – numbering at least 15 million – after a mutated version of the coronavirus was found in the animals. The Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Sweden and the US also reported outbreaks at mink farms.

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