HONG KONG - Hong Kong ordered the culling of about 2,000 hamsters on Tuesday (Jan 18) to prevent local transmissions of Covid-19 after some tested positive for the virus.
Health officials said 34 shops selling hamsters would suspend operations immediately and hand over the animals for testing and culling.
If the pets test positive, the shop staff will be quarantined and the premises sanitised before business can resume.
The order came after a sales staff member at a Causeway Bay pet shop, Little Boss, which has 15 branches and a warehouse, was reported on Monday to be infected with the Delta variant.
There are now at least three cases linked to the pet shop and the authorities are trying to get hold of 150 patrons who visited the shop between Jan 7 and 15, for quarantine.
Of the 125 samples taken from the shop, 11 were positive. Another 511 samples were taken from the warehouse, with some cages found to have traces of the virus, while other results are pending.
Rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas from the branches and the warehouse that test negative for Covid-19 will be culled too.
Health Secretary Sophia Chan said at a news conference that while there was no evidence that domestic animals can pass the disease to humans, the authorities were taking a cautious approach.
The hamsters from the Little Boss were imported from the Netherlands.
Dr Thomas Sit, a vet with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, said: “I think this is the first time we have found hamsters contracting the virus naturally, and... the Netherlands has not found coronavirus among its animal groups because if it has, it will have to notify the WHO (World Health Organisation).”
When asked why the culling order was given when it was not confirmed that the virus was spread from the hamster to the staff member, director of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, Mr Leung Siu Fai, said: “The hamsters are already infected... They excrete the virus and the virus can infect other animals, other hamsters and human beings.”
He added: “We have to protect public health, animal health and we have no choice. We have to make a firm decision.”
People who bought hamsters after Dec 22 - when a batch of infected hamsters from the Netherlands arrived in Hong Kong - have been urged by officials to turn their pets in for testing and then culling.
The order came as the authorities ramped up efforts to stem the surge of Covid-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant, amid concerns over untraceable community spread in a population that remains quite hesitant about vaccines.
In the coming weeks, the government will hand out 300,000 free rapid test kits to residents in all 18 districts.
From Tuesday, all residents entering Hong Kong via the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge’s Zhuhai Port will not be exempted from mandatory quarantine that was allowed under the Return2hk or Come2hk schemes.
In a news briefing on Tuesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said if rules were to be eased, it would be done around Feb 14 under the vaccine bubble arrangement, where staff and customers can enter prescribed premises only if they have been jabbed.
Last Friday, the government announced its decision to extend strict measures such as closures of gyms and cinemas, as well as a ban on dining in after 6pm, till Feb 3.
Mrs Lam added that financial aid amounting to HK$3.57 billion (S$620 million) would be handed out to eligible residents and businesses before the Chinese New Year.
Meanwhile, the police have arrested and charged two former Cathay Pacific flight attendants for breaking Covid-19 rules.
In a statement late on Monday, the police said investigations revealed that the pair had arrived in Hong Kong from the United States on Dec 24 and 25.
They conducted “unnecessary activities” during their medical surveillance period, flouted the law on Dec 25 and 27, and later tested positive for Omicron.
The two aircrew had sparked clusters now detected in the community that ended Hong Kong’s zero-infection streak of three months.
Dr Leung Chi Chiu, a respiratory medicine expert, told The Straits Times that the current outbreaks arose due to a delay in the strengthening of border control measures amid heavy air traffic during the festive periods.
“Apart from the loopholes in the quarantine exemption of aircrews, delay in stopping flights from areas with Omicron outbreaks led to an overload of our quarantine camp facilities, and the overflow of high-risk travellers to quarantine hotels made it less optimal for the control of airborne transmission.”
Dr Leung said that given aggressive flight bans, what remains is the clearing of transmission in the community.
“With the fast spreading Omicron and Delta variants, we need to create an environment where everyone can stay home as far as possible, to slow the spread and to give time for our testing and contact tracing activities.”
Mrs Lam also touched on the embarrassing case of a scandal-hit birthday party held on Jan 3 for Mr Witman Hung, Hong Kong deputy to the Chinese Parliament, that was attended by 225 individuals, including 15 officials and almost two dozen lawmakers.
"We need to give an account to the public and I need to be fair to the restaurants concerned," she said, adding that investigations are under way.
Home Affairs Secretary Caspar Tsui, who was among the first to issue an apology, was among the officials who joined the bash, and he was spotted leaving Penny's Bay quarantine camp on Monday night.
The last batch of government officials left the camp on Monday and had been ordered to "observe medical surveillance and home quarantine on their own leave", Mrs Lam noted. All are expected to return to office latest by Jan 25.
So far, Hong Kong has recorded more than 12,800 cases and 213 deaths.