January 18, 2022 8:45 AM EST

Authorities in Hong Kong have ordered the deaths of some 2,000 hamsters and other small rodent pets after health officials said they may be responsible for infecting a pet shop worker with COVID-19.

Eleven samples from hamsters at the Little Boss pet shop in the Chinese territory have tested positive for the Delta variant of COVID-19. Official suspicion fell on the tiny creatures after a 23-year-old worker at the pet shop tested positive for COVID-19.

While authorities agreed Tuesday there was no evidence to date that pets can transmit the SARS-CoV-2 virus to humans, customers who went to the store after Jan. 7 will be subjected to quarantine. Pet owners who bought hamsters beginning Dec. 22 were advised to turn their pets over to authorities to be tested for the virus. If the animals test positive, the owners will have to undergo quarantine. Regardless of the test result, the hamster will be put down.

All stores selling hamsters were also ordered to cease operations.

However, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper quoted an unnamed source as saying that health authorities believe “it’s very likely that the transmission this time is from animals to humans.” Genome sequencing of the virus found in the animals, imported from the Netherlands, shows it is the same as the virus present in the pet shop worker.

“We don’t want to cull all the animals,” conservation official Thomas Sit told reporters. “But we need to protect public health and animal health. We have no choice. We have to make a firm decision.”

It’s the latest dramatic measure Hong Kong officials have taken as part of the city’s “zero COVID” approach. After a cluster of fewer than 100 infections of the Omicron variant broke out in the city of 7.5 million, officials imposed 2020-style social distancing restrictions, including closing bars and gyms and ordering restaurants to stop dine-in service at 6 p.m. All flights from eight countries, including the U.S. and U.K., have been banned, and officials have barred air passengers from 150 countries from traveling through Hong Kong–once a global transit hub. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 is admitted to the hospital and their close contacts are tracked down and committed to a government facility for 14 days of quarantine. More than 3,000 people, including international travelers, are currently being held—most at the Penny’s Bay Quarantine Center near Hong Kong Disneyland.

The policy—which has seen the city record fewer than 13,000 cases and 213 COVID-19 deaths—mirrors similar vigilance by mainland China, which has worked to stamp out all traces of infection at any cost. Hong Kong is hoping that Beijing will allow a resumption of quarantine-free travel between the city and the mainland—which is critical to many businesses and families in Hong Kong.

It’s not the first time Hong Kong linked a human’s COVID-19 infection to a pet. At the onset of the pandemic in 2020, a 17-year-old Pomeranian tested positive for the virus. But in that case, health authorities confirmed the dog contracted the infection from its owner.

Some of the city’s residents took to Twitter to question the mass destruction of the hamsters—including the government’s promise to deal with them “humanely.”

 

The virus behind COVID-19 is thought to have jumped from an animal to a human, but animal-to-human transmission of COVID-19 disease has yet to be scientifically substantiated. Authorities advised city residents not to abandon their pets on the streets, and instead call conservation officials to handle the hamsters, or bring them directly to their offices.

Read more: China’s Coronavirus Lockdown Sees Surge in Abandoned Pets

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says dogs, cats and other animals can be infected with COVID-19, but the risk of animal-to-human transmission is low.

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