Global heating is leading dozens of bat species to migrate to southern China and other southeast Asian countries, amid growing concerns that the climate crisis could fuel more zoonotic disease and further deadly pandemics, media reports said.
A 2021 University of Cambridge study found that climate change may already have played a role in the emergence of the current pandemic, after researchers tracked large-scale changes in vegetation patterns across southwestern Yunnan province and neighbouring Myanmar and Laos, RFA reported.
“Increases in temperature, sunlight, and atmospheric carbon dioxide — which affect the growth of plants and trees — have changed natural habitats from tropical shrubland to tropical savannah and deciduous woodland,” the study said, adding, “This created a suitable environment for many bat species that predominantly live in forests.”
It said the number of coronaviruses in a given area is closely linked to the number of different bat species present, with an additional 40 bat species moving into Yunnan during the past 100 years, bringing with them around 100 new coronaviruses.
Genetic data suggests SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, may also have come from this region, according to the study’s first author Robert Beyer, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, RFA reported.
“Climate change over the last century has made the habitat in the southern Chinese Yunnan province suitable for more bat species,” Beyer said.
“As climate change altered habitats, species left some areas and moved into others — taking their viruses with them,” he said.
“This most likely allowed for new interactions between animals and viruses, causing more harmful viruses to be transmitted or evolve,” said Beyer.
Bats carry around 3,000 different types of coronavirus, with each bat species harbouring an average of 2.7 coronaviruses — most without showing symptoms.
While most coronaviruses carried by bats can’t jump into humans, several coronaviruses known to infect humans are very likely to have originated in bats, the study said.
The area of Yunnan covered by the study is also home to pangolins, which are a likely intermediary host for SARS-CoV-2, experts said.
“The virus is likely to have jumped from bats to these animals, which were then sold at a wildlife market in Wuhan, where the initial human outbreak occurred,” a press release accompanying the study said, RFA reported.