Saving animal habitats could help prevent the next pandemic: studies

Protecting wildlife and their habitats is not only one way to help other species, but it could also save humans from zoonotic pathogens, according to two new studies spanning decades of research. pathogens believed to have caused COVID-19.

Australian researchers studied a model of fruit bats and found that when they have more food and natural habitat to live in, the risk of spreading a dangerous virus is significantly less .

However, according to the researchers, their natural habitat has been degraded by climate change and human deforestation, potentially increasing our risk of contracting the virus.

Several animal-to-human viruses have originated in bats, as is widely believed to be the case with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as the Nipah virus and the virus. – Withdraw Hendra.

The researchers suggest that often, we treat environmentalism and conservation as separate from human health problems, but that the solutions to both problems may be intrinsically related.

“Right now, the world is focused on how we can prevent the next pandemic,” said Raina Plowright, professor in the Department of Public Health and Ecosystems at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine and author lead author of both studies, said in a paper. published by the university.

“Unfortunately, nature conservation or restoration is rarely part of the discussion. We hope that this article will bring prevention and nature-based solutions to the forefront of the conversation.”

The first study, published Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature, combined 25 years of data to create a detailed picture of bats behaviour, reproduction, health and movement. fruit in subtropical Australia.

The second study, published late October in the journal Ecology Letters, builds on data used in the Nature study to identify ecological conditions that are more or less associated with bats’ development. spread the virus.

Taken together, the two studies paint a clear picture: when bats have a healthy natural habitat and plenty of food, the risk of virus transmission is reduced.

The researchers looked at data from 1996 to 2020. To compare bats’ behavior with external factors in their environment, the researchers made sure the datasets included landscapes. which bats are feeding, the 25-year climate trends of the data, as well as what years there are food shortages and what years there is deforestation in the regions on which the bats rely.

They then placed data on bat behavior and climate factors alongside the amount of virus bats shed during this time period.

To measure the risk of zoonotic pathogens to humans related to changes in bat life, the researchers focused on one specific virus vector: the moving Hendra virus (HeV) from bats to horses to humans.

HeV is a rare disease first identified in 1994 that can be fatal in both humans and horses. All of the cases ever studied occurred on the northeast coast of Australia, with the virus originating in fruit bats before jumping to horses and eventually to infected horse caretakers.

The researchers observed that after an El Nino event, in which high temperatures in the Pacific Ocean affected the environment, plants that bats normally turn to for nectar failed to flower. This, combined with human deforestation, leads to food shortages for fruit bats.

When this happens, the bats are forced to divide into smaller groups and move to agricultural and urban areas to eat different foods such as figs and mangoes.

Breaking into smaller groups and eating less nutritious food sources than the nectar that normally makes up the majority of their diet, according to the study, created more opportunities for the virus to multiply and spread among animals. stressed bats.

In total, there was about 40 bat-to-horse transmission of HeV during the study period.

Research by Ecology Letters shows that food-starved bats also shed more viruses, possibly a side effect of trying to conserve more energy.

The fact that fruit bats often migrate to agricultural areas in search of food when their natural habitat is disrupted has facilitated more transmission because it brings bats closer to horses, which allowing HeV to pass from bats to humans.

An event that seems to strengthen the link between the habitat and the food the researchers are observing.

According to studies, the sudden bloom of eucalyptus trees attracted a large number of bats to that area, and while these trees were in bloom, the spread of pathogens stopped altogether.

“We fed these data to network models and found that we could predict clusters of spread based on climate, food availability, and location of bats,” Plowright said. “We show that when the remaining habitat produces food, the spread stops, and so a sustainable way to prevent these events could be to conserve and restore critical habitat. .”

The researchers found that although bats had migrated to agricultural and urban areas in the past in response to short-term food and habitat problems, the responses were transient in the process. The past is increasingly becoming a habit shaped by long-term environmental changes.

Since 2003, there has been a trend toward more and more smaller urban and agricultural bat groups, with smaller numbers of bats returning to their natural habitats over the years.

The article states: “This may be because forests that provide nectar in winter have been extensively cleared.

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