HONG KONG — A hamster blamed for being the origin of a cluster of coronavirus infections in a Hong Kong residential building was confirmed to be free of the coronavirus on Friday.

The wrongly accused hamster will be returned to its owner, a 26-year-old man who tested positive for the coronavirus. He was one of at least three positive cases found in the same building. Officials were quick to call out the man’s pet hamster as a potential “patient zero” source of COVID-19 in that estate.

The controversy over hamsters began after a government finding that several hamsters from two batches of Netherland-imported hamsters tested positive for the virus. Later, a 23-year-old pet shop worker also tested positive. Worried about potential hamster-to-human viral transmission, the government ordered a mass culling of 2,000 hamsters in warehouses and local pet shops from the same batch.

Pet hamsters purchased from shops after Dec. 22 could be infected with the virus, authorities said, and “strongly recommended” pet owners to surrender their hamsters. Experts have said the city’s “unstainable” zero-COVID policy — a strict policy striving for zero local COVID-19 cases to resume quarantine-free travel with the mainland — is to be blamed for the hamsters’ culling. Volunteers dashed out to save abandoned hamsters.

As of Jan 21, around 2,500 animals, including hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas, were put down, according to the city’s agriculture department. Of the 113 hamsters surrendered from the public, only one turned out to be positive.

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