The transmission link of COVID between animals and humans is growing stronger. In Hong Kong, officials discovered that an employee of a local pet store had been infected with COVID by hamsters in the store.
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People who love pets might want to take a short break from this story, which lasts about four minutes. The Hong Kong government is taking aggressive action to contain an outbreak of the omicron variant. And among these measures, there is the euthanasia of pets that test positive for the coronavirus. NPR’s Ari Daniel reports.
ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: For Kim McCoy, it started one afternoon in mid-January.
KIM MCCOY: A lot of people were starting to message me, what’s going on in Hong Kong?
DANIEL: McCoy works as a private lawyer and he founded the Hong Kong Animal Law and Protection Organization.
MCCOY: I mean, my jaw dropped. What is this policy that the government has started?
DANIEL: The policy was to euthanize some 2,000 hamsters, animals that had themselves tested positive for COVID-19 or had been in contact with others who had.
MCCOY: It’s just completely barbaric and inhumane.
DANIEL: The reason for the cull dates back to a week earlier when a Hong Kong resident came down with COVID. Notably, she had contracted the delta variant, and there had been no locally acquired delta infection in Hong Kong in three months. So how did she get sick? It turned out that she worked at the downtown Little Boss pet store, raising the troubling possibility that pets could have given her COVID. Leo Poon, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, has embarked on a coordinated action with his lab and the government by screening many animals for the coronavirus.
LEO POON: We examined hundreds of hamsters, then also rabbits, guinea pigs. And then we also went to the warehouse, which supplies the animals to these pet shops.
DANIEL: In a soon to be published study, Poon’s team reported that just over half of 28 hamsters tested tested positive for COVID.
POON: The hamster was caught in the act.
DANIEL: After sequencing the viral genome, they found that the pet store employee most likely contracted COVID from the hamsters, which would mean that the COVID passed from humans to hamsters and vice versa. We have seen evidence of animal-to-human transmission elsewhere. Farmed mink had COVID and transmitted it to humans, and a new study shows that deer could possibly transmit COVID to humans. Each time an outbreak like this occurs, it raises the worrying prospect that the animal – in this case hamsters – could become a reservoir for the coronavirus, a reservoir where it could mutate to form a potentially new variant. problematic, then retransmit to humans.
POON: That’s why we want to stop this chain of transmission sooner.
DANIEL: Hence the government’s decision to euthanize hamsters.
POON: I feel bad about this.
DANIEL: Poon wasn’t alone. In Hong Kong, people have flocked to hamster support groups on social media. YouTube videos like this have surfaced pleading with people to keep and protect their hamsters.
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DANIEL: But not everyone listened. Here is Kim McCoy again.
MCCOY: You saw abandoned animals in parks and on roadsides. People don’t want to get COVID because in Hong Kong, once you have the disease, you go to these quarantine camps, and they’re absolutely awful.
DANIEL: McCoy tried to take legal action, but no hamster owner was willing to come forward to start a case.
MCCOY: They didn’t want to be seen as doing something that was completely against the government. It’s a big problem we have in Hong Kong because people are so scared.
DANIEL: Officials remain concerned that the international hamster trade may offer another route of transmission for COVID, but that concern is taking a back seat as the city scrambles to contain the omicron variant, which is now surging through Hong Kong in a stunning fifth wave. Ari Daniel, NPR News.
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