The dramatic global consequences of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic soon fueled quests for a suitable model that would facilitate the development and testing of therapies and vaccines. In contrast to other rodents, hamsters are naturally susceptible to infection with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and the Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus) rapidly developed into a popular model. It recapitulates many characteristic features as seen in patients with a moderate, self-limiting course of the disease such as specific patterns of respiratory tract inflammation, vascular endothelialitis, and age dependence. Among 4 other hamster species examined, the Roborovski dwarf hamster (Phodopus roborovskii) more closely mimics the disease in highly susceptible patients with frequent lethal outcome, including devastating diffuse alveolar damage and coagulopathy. Thus, different hamster species are available to mimic different courses of the wide spectrum of COVID-19 manifestations in humans. On the other hand, fewer diagnostic tools and information on immune functions and molecular pathways are available than in mice, which limits mechanistic studies and inference to humans in several aspects. Still, under pandemic conditions with high pressure on progress in both basic and clinically oriented research, the Syrian hamster has turned into the leading non-transgenic model at an unprecedented pace, currently used in innumerable studies that all aim to combat the impact of the virus with its new variants of concern. As in other models, its strength rests upon a solid understanding of its similarities to and differences from the human disease, which we review here.
Keywords: COVID-19; animal model; hamster; histopathology; pathology; preclinical research; review; severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2; vaccines.