Hong Kong to cull hamsters and quarantine pet store visitors over Covid fears

More than 1,000 hamsters will be culled and about 150 pet store visitors are to be sent to government quarantine facilities in Hong Kong as city officials respond to fears of animal-to-human coronavirus transmission.

Health officials in the Chinese territory launched the probe into the hamsters imported from the Netherlands after a pet store employee who had received two BioNTech/Fosun vaccinations tested positive for coronavirus. A number of hamsters and a shopper also tested positive.

Sophia Chan, Hong Kong’s health secretary, said the decision was made even though there was no significant evidence that pets could transmit Covid-19 to humans. “For the sake of prudence, we have to take precautionary measures against any transmission possibilities,” she told a press briefing.

The cull will include other pets to have recently arrived in the city, including rabbits and chinchillas, and imports will be suspended. All pet stores that sell hamsters have been forced to shut for inspection and cleaning.

The Hong Kong government has imposed some of the world’s toughest pandemic-control measures as it has sought to align with China’s zero-Covid policy, including banning passenger and transit flights and forcing overseas arrivals to endure hotel quarantine for up to three weeks.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has vowed to investigate accusations that Cathay Pacific, the city’s flagship carrier, abused quarantine exemptions for crew. Two former Cathay flight attendants were charged on Monday for allegedly breaching home isolation rules, after they tested positive for the Omicron variant and were subsequently accused of seeding a community outbreak.

The city’s leaders have also been rushing to contain a public backlash after 15 senior officials attended a karaoke party with more than 200 attendees this month in contravention of official advice to avoid big gatherings. Two of the guests tested positive and more than 100 were sent to a government quarantine centre.

“I can pledge that both our investigation into Cathay Pacific as well as government officials attending the [karaoke party] will not vanish into obscurity,” Lam said at a press briefing.

In China, authorities are also intensifying restrictions despite relatively few cases compared with other countries.

Officials have urged people to purchase fewer overseas goods and a logistics centre near Beijing’s international airport was closed for testing after it was suspected that Covid was detected on parcels.

Measures have included surveillance of overseas post, as fears have risen that the spread of the Omicron variant could disrupt the Beijing Winter Olympics next month. Pang Xiaohuo, deputy director of the Beijing Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Monday that the capital’s first Omicron patient had received a letter from Canada at the start of January.

Global health authorities, including the World Health Organization, have played down the risk of coronavirus transmission through freight and logistics networks.

As part of a strict zero-Covid strategy, Chinese authorities have imposed severe travel restrictions and a series of lockdowns that have affected as many as 20m people. The measures included mandatory testing in Tianjin, a northern port city of 14m people where the first domestic Omicron cases were reported this month, and a lockdown in Xi’an, a city of more than 13m residents.

Organisers of the Winter Olympics said tickets would not be sold to the general public, as the country tackles outbreaks across multiple provinces.

New community-transmitted cases of the highly infectious variant were reported in five cities and provinces on Tuesday, although the National Health Commission reported 127 new local cases on Monday, down from 163 the previous day.

“[I]t has been decided that tickets should not be sold any more but be part of an adapted programme that will invite groups of spectators to be present on site during the Games”, organisers said.

Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding in Beijing

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