Next SARS-CoV-2? Global 'hot spots' where it may emerge, revealed

·2-min read

Global forest fragmentation, agricultural expansion and concentrated livestock production are creating 'hot spots' favourable for bats that carry coronaviruses, where conditions are ripe for the diseases to jump from bats to humans, a new study has revealed.

Coronavirus around blood cells
Coronavirus around blood cells

While the exact origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus remain unclear, scientists believe that the disease most likely emerged when a virus that infects horseshoe bats was able to jump to humans, either directly through wildlife-to-human contact, or indirectly by first infecting an intermediate animal host, such as the pangolin, sometimes known as the scaly anteater.

Horseshoe bats are known to carry a variety of coronaviruses, including strains that are genetically similar to ones that cause COVID-19 and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

The horseshoe bat's range extends from Western Europe through Southeast Asia.

Flying bat hunting in forest. The Greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum) occurs in Europe, Northern Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Asia. It is the largest of the horseshoe bats in Europe and is thus easily distinguished from other species.
Flying bat hunting in forest. The Greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum) occurs in Europe, Northern Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Asia. It is the largest of the horseshoe bats in Europe and is thus easily distinguished from other species.

By identifying areas of forest fragmentation, human settlement and agricultural and livestock production, and comparing these to known horseshoe bat habitats, scientists identified potential hot spots where habitat is favourable for these bat species, and where these so-called zoonotic viruses could potentially jump from bats to humans.

The analysis also identified locations that could become easily become hot spots with changes in land use.

Most of the current hot spots are clustered in China, where a growing demand for meat products has driven the expansion of large-scale, industrial livestock farming. 

Concentrated livestock production is particularly concerning because the practice brings together large populations of genetically similar, often immune-suppressed animals that are highly vulnerable to disease outbreaks, researchers said.

The analysis also found that parts of Japan, the north Philippines and China south of Shanghai are at risk of becoming hot spots with further forest fragmentation, while parts of Indochina and Thailand may transition into hot spots with increases in livestock production.

While China has been a leader in tree planting and other greening efforts over the past two decades, many of the trees have been planted in discontinuous land areas or forest fragments. To tilt the ecological balance back in favour of specialist species, creating continuous areas of forest cover and wildlife corridors are more important than increasing total tree cover.

Human health is intertwined with environmental health and also animal health.

The study is one of the first to connect the dots and really drill down into the geographic data on land use to see how humans are coming into contact with species that might be carriers.

(Inputs from ANI)

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