Pet Hamsters most likely spread the Delta strain of SARS-CoV-2 to humans in Hong Kong

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A recent preprint illustrated that pet hamsters likely transferred the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 to humans in Hong Kong, following genetic analysis that detected the virus in several animals. The researchers believe the virus spread from humans to hamsters and then back to humans, infecting 50 people so far, some of whom had visited the pet shop. It is the first scientific proof that hamsters may transmit SARS-CoV-2 to people.

Apart from mink, they’re the only species known to do so—though hamsters are very sensitive to SARS-CoV-2 infection and are regularly employed in the lab to examine COVID-19.

According to co-author Leo Poon, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, the findings imply that the pet trade might be a conduit for COVID-19 transmission. Humans are still more likely to be infected by other people, he argues, “to be fair to the hamsters.”

On January 15, a 23-year-old pet shop employee tested positive for the Delta variant of the virus, leading researchers to the hamsters. Prior to that, the last community case of Delta had been reported in early October, thanks to Hong Kong’s “zero-tolerance” COVID-19 policy.

Hundreds of animals were tested by public health officials at the pet shop and the warehouse that supplied it. They found SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA or antibodies in 15 of 28 Syrian hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus), but none in dwarf hamsters or mice. There were no obvious signs of infection in the animals.

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The samples collected from 12 hamsters and the first three people who tested positive for COVID-19, including the pet-shop worker and a shop visitor, were then genomically sequenced. The researchers discovered a version of Delta in all of the samples that had never been seen before in Hong Kong, implicating the pets as the source of the human infections. Furthermore, the sequences of the first and second patients were sufficiently different to suggest two distinct human infection events. The third patient, the second’s spouse, hadn’t been to the store but had a virus that was identical to the second’s, implying that viruses transmitted from hamsters to humans could still be passed from person to person.

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