Climate change could spark next pandemic: Study

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As the earth’s climate continues to warm, researchers have predicted that wild animals will be forced to relocate their habitats, likely to regions with large human populations, dramatically increasing the risk of a viral jump to humans that could lead to the next pandemic.

A study, published in the journal Nature, suggests that climate change will become the biggest upstream risk factor for disease emergence, exceeding higher-profile issues like deforestation, wildlife trade, and industrial agriculture.

“The closest analogy is actually the risks we see in the wildlife trade,” said lead author Colin Carlson from Georgetown University.

“We worry about markets because bringing unhealthy animals together in unnatural combinations creates opportunities for this stepwise process of emergence – like how SARS jumped from bats to civets, then civets to people. But markets are not special anymore; in a changing climate, that kind of process will be the reality in nature just about everywhere,” he added.

In their study, the team conducted the first comprehensive assessment of how climate change will restructure the global mammalian virome.

The work focuses on geographic range shifts and the journeys that species will undertake as they follow their habitats into new areas.

As they encounter other mammals for the first time, the study projects they will share thousands of viruses.

The team said these shifts bring greater opportunities for viruses like Ebola or coronaviruses to emerge in new areas, making them harder to track, and into new types of animals, making it easier for viruses to jump across a “stepping stone” species into humans.

Of concern is that animal habitats will move disproportionately in the same places as human settlements, creating new hotspots of spillover risk.

Much of this process may already be underway in today’s 1.2 degrees warmer world, and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may not stop these events from unfolding.

An additional important finding is an impact rising temperatures will have on bats, which account for the majority of novel viral sharing. Their ability to fly will allow them to travel long distances, and share the most viruses.

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