According to media reports, global warming is causing dozens of bat species to migrate to southern China and other Southeast Asian countries, amid growing fears that the climate crisis will fuel more zoonotic disease and deadly pandemics.
Climate change may have already played a role in the emergence of the current pandemic, according to a 2021 University of Cambridge study, which tracked large-scale changes in vegetation patterns across southwestern Yunnan province and neighbouring Myanmar and Laos.
“Increases in temperature, sunlight, and atmospheric carbon dioxide — which affect the growth of plants and trees — have changed natural habitats from tropical shrubland to tropical savannah and deciduous woodland,” the study said, adding, “This created a suitable environment for many bat species that predominantly live in forests.”
According to the study, the number of coronaviruses in a given area is closely related to the number of different bat species present, with an additional 40 bat species moving into Yunnan over the last 100 years, bringing with them an estimated 100 new coronaviruses.
According to the study’s first author, Robert Beyer, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, genetic data suggests SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, may also have originated in this region.
“Climate change over the last century has made the habitat in the southern Chinese Yunnan province suitable for more bat species,” Beyer said.
“As climate change altered habitats, species left some areas and moved into others — taking their viruses with them,” he said.
“This most likely allowed for new interactions between animals and viruses, causing more harmful viruses to be transmitted or evolve,” said Beyer.
Around 3,000 different coronaviruses are carried by bats, with each bat species carrying an average of 2.7 coronaviruses – most of which do not cause symptoms.
While most coronaviruses carried by bats cannot infect humans, the study found that several coronaviruses known to infect humans are very likely to have originated in bats.
Experts believe pangolins, which live in the Yunnan region studied, are a likely intermediary host for SARS-CoV-2.
“The virus is likely to have jumped from bats to these animals, which were then sold at a wildlife market in Wuhan, where the initial human outbreak occurred,” a press release accompanying the study said, RFA reported.