Climate change will result in thousands of new viruses spread among animal species by 2070, and that is likely to increase the risk of emerging infectious diseases jumping from animals to humans, a new study says.
That is especially true for Africa and Asia, continents that have been hot spots for deadly disease spread from humans to animals or vice versa over the past decades, including influenza, HIV, Ebola and COVID-19.
Researchers, who published their findings on Thursday in the journal Nature, used a model to examine how more than 3,000 mammal species might migrate and and share viruses over the next 50 years if the world warms by 2°C, which research shows is possible.
They found that cross-species virus spread would happen more than 4,000 times among mammals alone. Birds and marine animals were not included in the study.
Researchers said not all the viruses would spread to humans or become pandemics of the scale of COVID-19, but the number of cross-species viruses increases the risk of spread to humans.
The study highlights two global crises — climate change and infectious disease spread — as the world grapples with what to do about both.
Previous research has looked at how deforestation, extinction and wildlife trade lead to animal-human disease spread, but there is less research about how climate change could influence this type of disease transmission, the researchers said at a media briefing.
“We don’t talk about climate a lot in the context of zoonoses,” or diseases that can spread from animals to humans, said study coauthor Colin Carlson, an assistant professor of biology at Georgetown University. “Our study ... brings together the two most pressing global crises we have.”
Experts on climate change and infectious disease agreed that a warming planet would likely lead to increased risk for the emergence of new viruses.
Study coauthor Gregory Albery, a disease ecologist at Georgetown University, said that because climate-driven infectious disease emergence is likely already happening, the world should be doing more to learn about and prepare for it.
“It is not preventable, even in the best case climate change scenarios,” Albery said.
Carlson, who was also an author on the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that we must cut greenhouse gas and phase out fossil fuels to reduce the risk of infectious disease spread.
Jaron Browne, organizing director of the climate justice group Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, said the study highlights climate injustices experienced by people living in Africa and Asia.
“African and Asian nations face the greatest threat of increased virus exposure, once again illustrating how those on the front lines of the crisis have very often done the least to create climate change,” Browne said.
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