I doubt it will involve tunnelling under the wall and fake travel documents, but the 2022 Great Hamster Escape is apparently underway in Hong Kong. It’s not surprising, following the recent heavy-handed over-reaction to finding SARS-CoV-2 in a small number of hamsters, and the attempted blame-shifting (COVID-19? No, we don’t have any of that spreading in people here… just imported on packages from Canada and in those fuzzy biohazardous rodents).

The Guardian recently posted an article about the hamsterexodus from Hong Kong, which stated “Local media was awash with footage and images of crying children saying goodbye to their hamsters, and interviews with people working to save them. Many spoke anonymously, their voices and faces disguised out of fear of retribution amid Hong Kong’s worsening security crackdown.” 

  • I know there’s a lot of crazy in this pandemic, but this has to be one of the more bizarre scenarios.

Let’s consider the actual risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission from hamsters:

  • The risk is presumably near zero. Hamsters can be infected by people. That’s why they’ve been found carrying “human” strains. We (people) are doing a great job of spreading this virus to a variety animal species; some  get sick, some get subclinical infections, and some don’t get infected at all.
  • There’s plausible risk of transmission back to people from some animal species. Hamsters can spread the virus hamster-to-hamster, so it’s not impossible they could spread it hamster-to-human.  However, we need to consider the odds of getting SARS-CoV-2 from a hamster vs a human (exceptionally low), and whether we can use safe, practical control measures for hamsters (pretty easy considering their size and that they’re usually kept well contained anyway).

Killing hamsters that have been in households for weeks is particularly dumb. Even in the very unlikely scenario that the hamster was infected, hamsters only shed the virus for a short period of time (a few days), so there would be no risk now.

Identification of SARS-CoV-2 in hamsters in Hong Kong is an indication that there is more spread in people than is understood (or acknowledged). Culling hamsters is either a misinformed response or an attempt to deflect blame for burgeoning local human transmission (or both).