FRIDAY, Feb. 5, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- It's a link few might have considered, but a new study indicates that climate change may have prompted the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rising temperatures caused by greenhouse emissions have boosted the growth of bat-friendly forest habitat in China's southern province of Yunnan and neighboring areas, making the region a hotspot for bat-borne coronaviruses, the researchers explained. Genetic data suggest the new coronavirus may have arisen in this region.
Coronaviruses are common in bats, and it's believed that SARS-CoV-2 -- the virus that causes COVID-19 -- may have originated in bats and then jumped into humans.
In the area analyzed in the study, climate change-related increases in temperature, sunlight and atmospheric carbon dioxide -- which affect the growth of plants and trees -- have caused the natural habitat to change from tropical shrubland to tropical savannah and deciduous woodland.
It's now a welcoming environment for many bat species that predominantly live in forests, and an additional 40 bat species that harbor 100 more types of bat-borne coronavirus have moved into Yunnan province in the past century, according to the study published Feb. 5 in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
"Climate change over the last century has made the habitat in the southern Chinese Yunnan province suitable for more bat species," said study first author Robert Beyer, a researcher in the University of Cambridge's department of zoology, in the United Kingdom.
"Understanding how the global distribution of bat species has shifted as a result of climate change may be an important step in reconstructing the origin of the COVID-19 outbreak," added Beyer, who has a research fellowship at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in Germany.
Over the last century, climate change has led to increases in bat species in Central Africa, and in some areas of Central and South America, the researchers said in a university news release.
According to study co-author Andrea Manica, from Cambridge's department of zoology, "The COVID-19 pandemic has caused tremendous social and economic damage. Governments must seize the opportunity to reduce health risks from infectious diseases by taking decisive action to mitigate climate change."
The researchers also said it's crucial to limit the expansion of urban areas, farmland and hunting grounds into natural areas, to reduce contact between people and disease-carrying animals.
The World Health Organization has more on climate change and health.
SOURCE: University of Cambridge, news release, Feb. 5, 2021