Climate change may increase the spread of viruses between land mammals

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Models of mammal migration in response to 2°C of global warming show that there could be more than 4500 new types of viral transmission between species by the end of the century



Life



28 April 2022

Cloud of Flying-foxes in riparian monsoon forest on escarpment of central range, Broadmere Station, western Gulf of Carpentaria, Northern Territory, Australia

Bats could be responsible for a majority of new viral transmissions among land mammals in a warming world

Auscape/UIG/Shutterstock

The migration of land mammals in response to 2°C of global warming may give rise to thousands of new viral transmissions between mammal species by the end of the century, increasing the risk of novel viruses jumping from animals to infect humans.

“The coming decades will not only be hotter but sicker,” said Gregory Albery at Georgetown University in Washington DC, at a press briefing on 27 April.

Albery and his colleagues used information about animal habitats and behaviour to build a model of how 3139 mammal species would migrate under a 2°C increase in global temperature.

By comparing how closely species were related – and therefore how likely they were to pass viruses to each other – the team predict that around 120,000 encounters between mammals that hadn’t previously met could lead to 4584 cases of novel viral infections of species.

“Climate change is shaking our ecosystems to their core… moving mammals will meet each other for the first time and form new communities, [which will form a] new mechanism for disease emergence that will threaten the health of animals in the future, with ramifications for our health too,” said Albery.

The team forecast that bats will be responsible for the majority of new transmissions, which will primarily occur in elevated tropical regions across Africa and South-East Asia.

The findings highlight the need to more closely track the spread of viruses among wild mammals so we can control future outbreaks of disease in people. “Climate change is going to be the biggest driver of disease emergence, and health systems need to be ready for that,” said Colin Carlson, also at Georgetown University, at the briefing.

“This is happening and not preventable even in the best-case climate change scenarios,” said Albery.

However, further work will be needed to confirm how fast animals will actually migrate in response to warmer temperatures. “We use an upper limit of how quickly animals might move, so we will need to establish how fast they actually move in the future,” said Albery.

Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04788-w

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