Concerns that hamsters might also be capable of infecting humans first surfaced when a 23-year-old worker at the Little Boss pet shop in Hong Kong tested positive for Covid on 15 January – the city’s first Delta variant diagnosis for more than three months. A woman who visited the pet shop was also infected, and other members of her family tested positive in the days that followed.

The research confirms fears that a pet shop was the source of a recent Covid outbreak in the city, which has seen at least 50 people infected and led to the culling of more than 2,200 hamsters.

However, virologists emphasised that, although the pet trade could provide a route for viral spread, existing pet hamsters are unlikely to pose a threat to their owners and should not be harmed.

Many animals are susceptible to catching Covid from humans, but until now, only one – the mink – has proved capable of transmitting it in the opposite direction. Hamsters are particularly vulnerable to the virus – dwarf Roborovski hamsters can die from it – so have been widely used as a model for studying the disease.

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