Climate change may have played a key role in the pandemic, according to a study. Changes in climate in the forests of Southeast Asia have resulted in a massive proliferation of bat species in the region, according to the study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, CBS News reported.
Many scientists believe the virus that started the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic originated in bats in southern China's Yunnan province or neighboring areas before it crossed paths with humans, CBS reported.
"If bats carrying around 100 coronaviruses expanded into a new area due to climate change, then it would seem likely that this increases, rather than decreases, the chance that a coronavirus harmful to humans is present, transmitted, or evolves in this area," said Dr. Robert Beyer, lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, Science Daily reported.
Researchers found large-scale changes in types of vegetation over the past 100 years in the southern Chinese Yunnan province and adjacent regions in Myanmar and Laos. These climatic changes include increased temperature, sunlight and atmospheric carbon dioxide, which affects the growth of plants and trees. This has changed natural habitats from tropical shrubland to tropical savannah and deciduous woodland, making it an apt environment for many bat species that predominantly live in forests, Science Daily reported.
They found that over the last century, 40 species had relocated to southern China, Laos and Myanmar, the area where genetic analysis suggests the virus known as SARS-CoV-2 first appeared, France24 reported. Since each bat species carries an average of 2.7 coronaviruses, the researchers said 100 strains of coronavirus were now concentrated in this "hotspot" area, France 24 reported.
"Our paper is a long way away from saying the pandemic would not have happened without climate change,” Meyer told France24. "But I find it difficult to see that this climate-driven increase in bats and bat-borne coronaviruses make something like this less likely to happen."
Researchers from the University of Cambridge used temperature and rainfall data over the last 100 years to model populations of dozens of bat species based on their habitat requirements, France24 reported.
They also used climate records to create a map of the world's vegetation as it was a century ago. The findings concluded that the bat population had flourished in this pocket of Southeast Asia more than any other place on Earth, CBS reported.
These findings have scientists concerned about the probability that climate change will make future pandemics more likely, CBS News reported.
The study urged governments to take measures to manage the risk of another pandemic of a disease endemic in a wild animal, including limiting urban expansion and farming, France24 reported. It also called for greater effort to mitigate climate change to avoid large accumulations of wild species near human habitation, France 24 reported.
"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 Camilo Mora at the University of Hawaii, who contributed to the research.