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Healthcare

Hamsters in Hong Kong are euthanized after pet shop owner gets COVID-19

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People who love pets may want to take a little break from this story, which lasts about four minutes. The government of Hong Kong is taking aggressive measures to contain an outbreak of the omicron variant. And among those measures is euthanizing pets that test positive for 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 is 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 the euthanizing of some 2,000 hamsters, animals that either tested positive for COVID-19 themselves or that had been in contact with others that had.

MCCOY: It's just completely barbaric and inhumane.

DANIEL: The reason for the cull went back a week earlier when a Hong Kong resident came down with COVID. Notably, she had contracted the delta variant, and there hadn't been a locally acquired delta infection in Hong Kong in three months. So how had she gotten sick? Turned out she worked at the Little Boss pet shop downtown, which raised the troubling possibility that the pets could have given her COVID. Leo Poon, a virologist at The University of Hong Kong, leapt into coordinated action with his lab and the government screening numerous animals for coronavirus.

LEO POON: We screened hundreds of the hamsters and then also rabbits, guinea pig. And then we also went to the warehouse, which supplies the animals to these pet shops.

DANIEL: In a study soon to be published, Poon's team reported that just over half of the 28 hamsters tested were positive for COVID.

POON: The hamster was caught red-handed.

DANIEL: After sequencing the viral genome, they found that the pet store worker had most likely gotten COVID from the hamsters, which would mean that COVID had jumped from humans into hamsters and back again. We've seen evidence of animal-human transmission elsewhere. Farmed minks had COVID and transmitted it to humans, and a new study shows deer could possibly spread COVID back to people. Each time a spillover like this happens, it raises the concerning prospect that the animal - in this case, hamsters - could become a reservoir for the coronavirus, one where it could mutate to form a potentially problematic new variant and then transmit back to people.

POON: So that's why we want to stop this transmission chain early.

DANIEL: Hence, the government's decision to euthanize the hamsters.

POON: I feel bad about it.

DANIEL: Poon wasn't alone. In Hong Kong, people flocked to social media hamster support groups. YouTube videos like this one surfaced, imploring people to keep and protect their hamsters.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

DANIEL: But not everyone listened. Here's Kim McCoy again.

MCCOY: You were seeing animals being abandoned in parks and on roadsides. People don't want to get COVID because, in Hong Kong, once you get the disease, you go into 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 launch a case.

MCCOY: They didn't want to be seen to be doing something that was completely adverse to the government. That's a big problem that we have in Hong Kong because people are just so scared.

DANIEL: Officials remain concerned that the international hamster trade may offer COVID another route of transmission, but that worry is taking a backseat as the city scrambles to contain the omicron variant, which is now surging across Hong Kong in a stunning fifth wave. Ari Daniel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEON PANDA'S "SPACED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.