Climate change may cause more frequent pandemics - study

Global warming will push wild animals to relocate to habitats closer to humans, making the spreading of diseases easier.

 DELEGATES CONFERRING at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow earlier this month. (photo credit: YVES HERMAN/REUTERS)
DELEGATES CONFERRING at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow earlier this month.
(photo credit: YVES HERMAN/REUTERS)

A new study shows that pandemics may become more common as a result of climate change.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature, the study was led by a research team at Georgetown University.

The researchers concluded that global warming will cause wild animals to relocate their habitats to areas closer to human populations, making humans more susceptible to contracting viruses from them.

“The closest analogy is actually the risks we see in the wildlife trade,” said the study’s lead author Colin Carlson. “We worry about markets because bringing unhealthy animals together in unnatural combinations creates opportunities for this stepwise process of emergence - like how SARS jumped from bats to civets, then civets to people. 

"But markets aren’t special anymore," he said. "In a changing climate, that kind of process will be the reality in nature just about everywhere.”

The study particularly marked the risk concerning bats, which are the majority of virus spreaders from animals to humans. This is because their ability to fly allows them to travel longer distances, spreading the most viruses. As a result, Southeast Asia is expected to be one of the areas of greatest impact because of the large population of bats that live there.

 COVID-19 outbreak in Shanghai (credit: REUTERS) COVID-19 outbreak in Shanghai (credit: REUTERS)

“This mechanism adds yet another layer to how climate change will threaten human and animal health,” said the study’s co-lead author Gregory Albery.

“It’s unclear exactly how these new viruses might affect the species involved, but it’s likely that many of them will translate into new conservation risks and fuel the emergence of novel outbreaks in humans.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic, and the previous spread of SARS, Ebola, and Zika, show how a virus jumping from animals to humans can have massive effects,” said Sam Scheiner, a program director with the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which funded the research. 

“To predict their jump to humans, we need to know about their spread among other animals,” he said."This research shows how animal movements and interactions due to a warming climate might increase the number of viruses jumping between species.”