Explained: Why has Hong Kong decided to cull over 2000 hamsters?

Following an aggressive zero Covid policy, Hong Kong has recently decided to cull over 2,000 hamsters, after 11 of them tested positive for the virus and the first possible case of animal to human transmission was recorded in the city.

Hong Kong has also ordered that 34 pet shops be shut down and customers who recently visited these shops have been asked to quarantine. Those who bought hamsters have been asked to hand them over to the authorities.

The reaction by the public has been swift – thousands of people have signed petitions urging the government to roll back this decision, there are reports of people hiring private jets to take their pet hamsters out of Hong Kong and some samaritans have reportedly volunteered to adopt hamsters from pet shops in a bid to save them from their grim fate.

China’s zero Covid policy

Earlier this month, authorities in Hong Kong barred flights from at least eight countries including the UK and US as a precautionary measure against COVID-19.

Recently, China attributed the country’s only known case of the Omicron variant detected in Beijing to a package that came from Canada. Since then, people have been urged to wear masks and gloves while opening packages, especially those that come from abroad. China, which reported the first cases of coronavirus two years ago, reported its lone death due to the disease since May 2021, last week.

The Economist’s “global normalcy index”, which tracks 50 of the world’s largest economies, ranked China at 34, while India, which is currently experiencing the third wave, is ranked number 8. Because of China’s stringent zero Covid policies, which have put millions into lockdowns yet again, it is also one of the three countries from the list of 50 where normalcy (determined by factors such as time not spent at home, public transport, office use, cinema, flights and sports attendance) is lower than it was a year ago.

The Hong Kong government’s decision

The government has defended its decision as being based on scientific principles and has condemned the “irrational attitude” adopted towards the anti-epidemic efforts of the authorities.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive’s Office said in a statement that the call to cull was taken after a pet shop worker tested positive. Subsequently, when some samples taken from hamsters also tested positive, the “animals concerned” were “humanely” dispatched by the government. The Financial Times reported that these hamsters were imported from the Netherlands and the pet store worker, who was the owner of the shop, was fully vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Apart from outrage registered by the public, animal welfare groups have also condemned the decision taken with regards to the hamsters. Animals Asia posted on Twitter, “Animals Asia is shocked and saddened by the culling of thousands of pet hamsters in Hong Kong SAR. There is still no empirical evidence that hamsters can pass Covid-19 on to humans.”

But there are those as well who see the culling of the hamsters as reasonable and necessary, considering the number of human lives that have been lost to COVID-19.

An article on the World Socialist Web Site criticised the outrage against the Hong Kong government. It said, “The furor over the death of pet rodents is the latest iteration of a concerted campaign among the major capitalist powers and leading news outlets throughout the world to manufacture outrage over China’s Zero-COVID policies…”.

“China’s policies of mass testing, contact tracing, quarantine and, when necessary, lockdowns, have saved millions of lives. The measures have been strikingly effective,” it said.

So, can animals transmit the virus to humans?

So far, there have been reports of pet dogs, cats, ferrets, animals in zoos and sanctuaries, minks and hyenas among some others testing positive for COVID-19.

In November 2020, Denmark, the world’s largest mink producer, culled its mink population of over 17 million after infections from the virus in a couple hundred cases of humans were associated with farmed minks.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk of animals spreading the virus to humans is low.

It says that humans can infect animals during close contact, but that more studies are required to understand how different animals could be affected by COVID-19.

Ideally, those with COVID-19 should avoid making contact with animals, including pets, livestock and wildlife. “Some coronaviruses that infect animals can be spread to people and then spread between people, but this is rare. This is what happened with SARS-CoV-2, which likely originated in bats.” the CDC says.

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