UNITED KINGDOM. London: Evidence from a new study, published on “Science of the Total Environment” indicates that shifts in global bat diversity, caused by climate change, might have played an important role in the COVID-19 outbreak in China.
Bats are the origin of several coronaviruses that can infect humans. For instance, they were the likely origin of the SARS-CoV-1, that caused the outbreak of SARS in Asia in 2003, and SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that caused the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The world’s bat population carries around 3,000 different coronaviruses, as reported by Forbes.
Thus, the number of coronaviruses present in an area is correlated with the richness of local bats species; an increase in the number of bat species in a specific area, due to climate change, could increase the likelihood of harmful coronaviruses to be transmitted to humans.
Most coronaviruses carried by bats cannot jump into humans, however, the transmission can happen in certain circumstances.
For instance, the area identified by the study as a hotspot for the increase in bat species caused by climate change, is also home to pangolins.
Data suggested that these animals might have acted as intermediate hosts to SARS-CoV-2. The virus is likely to have jumped from bats to pangolins which were then sold at a wildlife market in Wuhan.
40 more bat species have moved into the southern Chinese Yunnan province
According to the study, over the last century, the type of vegetation in the southern Chinese Yunnan province and the neighbours Myanmar and Laos- the region where genetic data suggests SARS-CoV-2 may have arisen- has changed significantly.
So, the increasing temperature, sunlight, and atmospheric carbon dioxide have changed natural habitats and created in the region a suitable environment for many bats species that usually live in the forests.
The study has found that an additional 40 bat species have moved in the past 100 years in those southern Chinese provinces, bringing with them more than 100 types of bat-borne coronavirus.
The research processes
The researchers created a map of the world’s vegetation of a century ago, using records of temperature, precipitation and cloud cover.
The following step was to use the information on the vegetation requirements of the world’s bat species and then work out the global distribution of each species in the early 1900s.
Compering this old map to the current distribution allowed the experts to see how the number of different species has changed across the planet over the last century due to climate change.
Other areas of concern
According to the study, areas estimated to have experienced a significant increase in bat species richness as a result of climate change, include Central Africa, several scattered patches in Central and South America, and notably an area located in the southern Chinese Yunnan province and neighbouring regions in Myanmar and Laos.
“The fact that climate change can accelerate the transmission of wildlife pathogens to humans should be an urgent wake-up call to reduce global emissions,” said in a statement Professor Camilo Mora, an associate professor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and one of the authors of the study.