Global warming may have contributed to the emergence of coronavirus

A study indicates that the zoonotic origins of coronavirus may have been favoured by global warming’s impact on the conditions for bat habitats.

Global warming may have played a major role in the zoonotic origin of SARS-CoV-2, also known as the novel coronavirus, that is in the passage from animals to humans of the infectious agent responsible for the Covid-19 disease. In particular, the increase in global average temperatures has substantially changed the microclimate of certain ecosystems, providing new habitats for bats, a species that is presumed to have first passed the virus onto humans.

Bat habitats increase in southern China

These are the results of a study published on 5 February by Science of the Total Environment and edited by a group of researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK. Scientists modelled the spread of different bat populations by cross-referencing temperature and rainfall data to understand where the best conditions arose for the vegetation needed to support the mammals’ survival.

china, coronavirus confinement
An empty street in Wuhan, China, during the March 2020 lockdown © Wanghe/Getty Images

The data indicates that over the past century forty species of bats have seen an expansion of areas with favourable conditions especially in a strip of land bordering southern China, Myanmar and Laos. “Our paper is a long way away from saying the pandemic wouldn’t have happened without climate change,” the study’s main author Robert Meyer told AFP. “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”.

IPBES recommends protecting ecosystems

The increase in contacts between humans and animals due to the destruction of ecosystems is a risk factor has been widely recognised by the scientific community. “It’s two sides of a similar coin: we penetrate deeper into their habitat but at the same time climate change can have the effect that it pushes the pathogen in our direction,” Meyer adds.

The Pandemics Report published last autumn, which brings together studies by 22 scientists, tackles the steps that need to be taken to avert new pandemics. The report was compiled by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an independent intergovernmental body recognised by the United Nations. The study iterates the importance of protecting ecosystems, stopping biodiversity decline, reducing resource exploitation and industrial farming, stopping deforestation and limiting the wildlife trade.

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