Hong Kong to lift year-long ban on hamster imports

Hong Kong is set to lift its year-long ban on the import of hamsters later this month as it unwinds some of the world's toughest Covid restrictions. Officials in the city previously ordered a culling of the pets to stop the spread of Covid-19.

The city's Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) told the BBC the rodents would be tested for the virus.

Last year officials said around 2,000 animals would be culled to stop the spread of Covid.

The move came after an outbreak of infections at a pet shop.

A spokesperson for the AFCD said it planned to lift the import ban in mid-January.

"Our staff will arrange to collect samples from hamsters and other small mammals for Covid-19 testing. They can only be sold if the test results are negative," the spokesperson said.

They added that this was because studies had found the animals could contract the virus and pass it to humans.

"If such imports are to resume the hamsters need to be handled with consideration [and] given the best care possible during transport and quarantine," a spokesperson from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Hong Kong said.

Rodent row
Hong Kong banned the import of hamsters last year after an outbreak of the Delta variant of Covid-19 was linked to a worker at the Little Boss pet shop in the city.

It prompted officials to test hundreds of animals in the shop for coronavirus. Eleven hamsters that had been imported from the Netherlands tested positive.

Officials said they believed this could have been a case of animal-to-human Covid transmission, and said around 2,000 hamsters and other small animals would be culled as a "preventative measure".

At the time thousands of people signed a petition against the decision to put down the animals.

"Subsequent testing of humans and hamsters confirmed that there was transmission of Covid-19 from hamsters to humans," Vanessa Barrs, a professor of companion animal health at the City University of Hong Kong, told the BBC.

"The situation was very sad, but the government acted out of an abundance of caution at that time," she added.

The virus that causes Covid, Sars-Cov-2, can be caught by animals including dogs, cats and hamsters, which are all commonly kept as pets. But there is no clear evidence that pets can easily pass the infection to humans.

Louis Yeung, owner of the Chinchilla & Pets Shop in Hong Kong, said he had handed over 22 hamsters to be culled by the authorities last year.