Leading to onward human-to-human transmission: a case study
Malik Peiris and Leo Poon just published a report in the Lancet showing that the diversity of Delta virus in hamsters is more diverse than expected, that multiple human clusters were found, suggesting that there were more than one hamsters to human transmission in this outbreak, and that the hamster virus is still transmissible between human.
Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from humans to other mammals, including pet animals, has been reported. However, with the exception of farmed mink, there is no previous evidence that these infected animals can infect humans, resulting in sustained human-to-human transmission. Following a confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection of a pet shop worker, animals in the shop and the warehouse supplying it were tested for evidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection.
In this case study, viral swabs and blood samples were collected from animals in a pet shop and its corresponding warehouse in Hong Kong. Nasal swab or saliva samples from human COVID-19 patients epidemiologically linked to the pet shop and from subsequent local cases confirmed to be infected by SARS-CoV-2 delta variant were collected. Oral swabs were tested by quantitative RT-PCR (RT-qPCR) for SARS-CoV-2 and blood samples were serologically tested by a surrogate virus neutralisation test and plaque reduction neutralisation test. The SARS-CoV-2 RT-qPCR positive samples were sequenced by next generation viral full genome sequencing using the ISeq sequencing platform (Illumina), and the viral genomes were phylogenetically analysed.
Eight (50%) of 16 individually tested Syrian hamsters in the pet shop and seven (58%) of 12 Syrian hamsters in the corresponding warehouse were positive for SARS-CoV-2 infection in RT-qPCR or serological tests. None of the dwarf hamsters (n=75), rabbits (n=246), guinea pigs (n=66), chinchillas (n=116), and mice (n=2) were confirmed positive for SARS-CoV-2 in RT-qPCR tests. SARS-CoV-2 viral genomes deduced from human and hamster cases in this incident all belong to the delta variant of concern (AY.127) that had not been circulating locally before this outbreak. The viral genomes obtained from hamsters were phylogenetically related with some sequence heterogeneity. Phylogenetic dating suggests infection in these hamsters occurred around Oct 14, 2021 (95% CI Sept 15 to Nov 9, 2021). Multiple zoonotic transmission events to humans were detected, leading to onward human-to-human transmission.
Pet hamsters can be naturally infected with SARS-CoV-2. The virus can circulate among hamsters and lead to human infections. Both genetic and epidemiological results strongly suggest that there was more than one hamster-to-human transmission event in this study. This incident also led to onward human transmission. Importation of SARS-CoV-2-infected hamsters was a likely source of this outbreak.