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New Covid threats terrify residents and experts

HONG KONG - In their relentless quest to eliminate coronavirus, the authorities in China and Hong Kong have set themselves new goals: international mail and hamsters.

Faced with persistent outbreaks that have threatened to undermine Beijing's strict Covid-19 strategy and overshadow next month's Winter Olympics, officials turned to new measures this week that have aroused doubt and dismay from both local residents and experts.

Residents of Beijing and other cities have been urged to look after goods shipped from abroad, after officials said the capital's first case of the more portable omicron variant may have arrived via a package from Canada. The State Post Bureau also said it had ordered stronger measures to disinfect items shipped from abroad.

Meanwhile, an estimated 2,000 hamsters and other small animals are killed in Hong Kong because of what officials say could be Chinese territory's first case of animal-to-human transmission, sparking outrage from pet owners and animal welfare groups.

The hamster marshmallow plays in a cage before being dropped off at an animal management center on Wednesday in the Sha Tin area of ​​Hong Kong.Bertha Wang / AFP - Getty Images

The measures come despite doubts among health experts that the virus can be transmitted via packaging. The World Health Organization has said that coronavirus "needs a living animal or a human host to multiply and survive and cannot multiply on the surface of food packages." There is also little scientific evidence for transmission from animals to humans, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describing the risk of animals infecting humans with Covid as "low."

But the Hong Kong authorities are not taking any chances.

Three people associated with the Little Boss pet store have been confirmed to have infections of the delta variant, Hong Kong's first such case in three months. Officials say they believe the three people - an employee, a customer and the customer's husband - may have been infected by imported hamsters in the store, 11 of which have returned preliminary positive tests.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation said it did not have the resources to isolate the animals or test them repeatedly and that "humane deployment of all hamsters involved is a safe and feasible way to control the epidemic."

Officials have ordered all pet stores in Hong Kong to stop selling hamsters and suspend imports of small animals in general. They also urged the public to drop off hamsters bought at local pet stores on or after December 22, when the first of two recent shipments from the Netherlands arrived in Hong Kong.

In a statement, the department said that on Wednesday night it had destroyed 69 hamsters, 21 rabbits and seven chinchillas in the pet store Little Boss and another 861 hamsters, 138 rabbits, 81 guinea pigs, 31 chinchillas and three white mice at. its stock. Hamsters in other pet stores are expected to be euthanized within a week. The department also said more than 60 hamsters had been handed over at its management center.

The move is a consequence of the territory's inflexible Covid approach, said Dr. Nikolaus Osterrieder, Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Life Sciences at City University of Hong Kong.

"You can not afford anything," he said, "so I do not think there was any choice but to try to limit this outbreak in hamsters."

Hong Kong and mainland China are among the only places in the world that still pursue a "zero-covid" strategy that adopts strict policies to ensure that there are as few cases as possible. China has largely avoided major outbreaks, but continues to fight hikes in several cities and is on high alert ahead of the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics in less than three weeks.

Organizers announced Monday that tickets will not be sold to the public, with only "select" spectators allowed at the events. About 20 million people in three cities are currently under lockdown.

The Winter Olympics will take place under even stricter conditions than those imposed during the summer games in Tokyo last year.Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

Throughout the pandemic, Chinese officials have blamed imported goods for virus transmission, suggesting the virus may have originated outside the country before it was first discovered in the city of Wuhan in late 2019.

This week, state media turned its focus to packages from abroad, where postal workers were now asked to wear protective gear and disinfect international mail. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 people were recently ordered to quarantine at home in Zhejiang province after coming into contact with Vietnamese dragon fruit suspected of being contaminated.

But Hong Kong's hamster killing has provoked particular mockery, with an online signature collection opposing receiving more than 33,000 signatures on Thursday afternoon.

The local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said it was "shocked and concerned" by the government's announcement Tuesday that it said "did not take animal welfare and the human-animal bond into account."

Public health experts and animal welfare groups urged pet owners not to panic or leave their animals behind.

"For us, I think the policy was a bit hasty and not well planned," said El Chan, founder of the Society for Abandoned Animals.

Chan said the sudden announcement had caught pet owners unprepared and that some members of the public were "scared".

Hamsters are widely used all over the world as a model for Covid in humans. They are highly susceptible to the disease and secrete lots of viruses, which increases the prospect of transmission from animals to humans, said Dr. Richard Bowen, who studies zoonotic diseases at Colorado State University.

"A room filled with infected hamsters would pose a risk of infection to people entering that room," said Bowen, whose work involves testing Covid drugs and vaccines in the animals.

But hamsters kept in small numbers at home are unlikely to produce enough viruses to infect household members, especially if vaccinated, Osterrieder said. It is also difficult to identify an infected hamster without testing as they exhibit few symptoms.

"They are quiet and they are a little depressed and losing weight for a few days, but they are good," he said.

The area is not the only place authorities have taken extreme measures against animals to curb the spread of the pandemic. At the end of 2020, Denmark killed 17 million mink after a new mutation of coronavirus was discovered on its mink farms.

While experts stressed that it was unlikely that pets would infect their owners, there has been some evidence that owners can infect pets.

But while experts have said that coronavirus most likely jumped from animals to humans in the first place, it has become a deadly global pandemic because the virus spread so easily between humans.

Hong Kong, a densely populated city of 7.4 million people, is vulnerable to an outbreak because the public has been slow to get vaccinated. Just over 70 percent of the eligible population is fully grafted, which is one of the lowest rates among the world's developed economies.

Dr. Yuen Kwok-yung, head of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Hong Kong and a government adviser, told a local radio program on Wednesday that hamster killing was a "difficult decision" and that officials understand that "many people love their pets. "

"But at the same time, we have to keep in mind that this decision would have been completely unnecessary if everyone in Hong Kong had been vaccinated."

Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong, Rhoda Kwan reported from Melbourne, Australia.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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