Research highlight

Ecology: Coronavirus outbreak risk from hotspots of bat presence and livestock

Nature Food

June 1, 2021

Regions with high levels of forest fragmentation and where animal farming intrudes into wildlife habitats could facilitate the transmission of coronaviruses from bats to humans, reports a study in Nature Food.

These findings illustrate how land-use change and the livestock revolution may trigger the emergence of future, novel SARS-related coronaviruses.

Human-driven land-use changes resulting from food production, urbanization and deforestation are threatening wildlife habitats, bringing humans and wildlife into closer contact. Asian horseshoe bats are known to harbour SARS-related coronaviruses that could infect humans. Increased human–wildlife interactions have been hypothesized to drive new disease outbreaks, however, quantitative evidence supporting this theory is missing.

Maria Cristina Rulli and colleagues collected data on Asian horseshoe bat distribution since 2000, covering regions from Western Europe to East Asia. Analysis of spatial data on forest cover, cropland distribution, livestock density, human population, human settlements and land-use changes in regions populated by these bats (an area greater than 28.5 million km2) allowed the authors to identify hotspots at risk of potential SARS-related coronavirus outbreaks in the future. These hotspots — located predominantly in China, but also in Indochina and Thailand — exhibit higher levels of forest fragmentation and concentrations of livestock and humans than other countries.

These findings demonstrate that the conversion of wildlife habitats to agricultural land for animal farming may be driving human–wildlife interactions, increasing the chances that humans interact with bats harbouring potentially pathogenic SARS-related coronaviruses. Understanding the circumstances under which coronaviruses can jump from wildlife to humans is crucial for predicting, and avoiding, future epidemics or pandemics, such as COVID-19.

doi: 10.1038/s43016-021-00285-x

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