A study shows that the movement of animal populations due to global warming will generate a context conducive to the proliferation of viruses, with the risk of a new pandemic in the background. But all is not lost.
After more than two and a half years of bearing the brunt of the pandemic, it is clear that we are still far from having finished hearing about it, despite the lifting of health restrictions in France. Many research laboratories are currently working to anticipate the emergence of the next viruses likely to cause a new potentially even more devastating pandemic. And according to a team of American researchers, climate change will play a major role in this dynamic.
This conclusion is based on an already well-established and documented observation: global warming tends to profoundly modify certain ecological niches. These changes have a very concrete consequence: just as we already see in humans, global warming also tends to cause significant population movements in other animal species.
These movements will in turn have a considerable impact on the ecological niches concerned. Mechanically, these changes will alter the subtle balance that reigns there by introducing new selection pressures; the different species will therefore be forced to respond to it by a process of natural selection, which favors the species most adapted to their environment.
Global warming as a driving force
However, the speed of this natural selection depends directly on the speed of reproduction of the species concerned. For the most developed species, such as mammals, these changes will be relatively slow… but the situation is significantly different for microorganisms that will arrive with these animals.
Unlike the latter, bacteria and viruses can reproduce extremely quickly. While these new environments will probably be very difficult for macroscopic species, the researchers’ simulations show that it will, on the other hand, be a real El Dorado for these pathogens. These micro-organisms will then have access to a whole range of potential hostsprobably weakened by this change in ecosystem and therefore all the more vulnerable.
Under these conditions, they will be able to have a field day; they will have plenty of time to circulate freely on a veritable epidemiological highwaybetween species whose system will often be unable to manage these pathogens unknown to the battalion.
This extremely important mixing will then give rise to many mutations, and, consequently, to the appearance of new strains of viruses and bacteria…and so on. This could therefore result in a significant snowball effect. And you don’t have to be a renowned epidemiologist to understand that some of these new viruses represent as many potential candidates for the next human pandemic.
According to the researchers, global warming therefore indirectly represents the very first risk factor for the emergence of new diseases, in the face of deforestation, the trade and consumption of wild animals, and even in front of industrial agriculture!
Solutions exist… but massive data is needed
According to the researchers, these first contacts between all these populations of newly refugee animals could represent a veritable epidemiological highway for “thousands” virus. “This mechanism adds a new layer of complexity to how global warming will threaten human and other animal life.”, explains Gregory Albert, postdoctoral fellow in biology at Georgetown and lead author of the study.
But that does not mean that humanity is powerless in the face of this dynamic. For authors, it is quite reasonable to think that we can anticipating the next major pandemics. But this involves setting up very quickly a monitoring system capable of analyzing, in parallel and in real time, the disease transmission and changes in ecological niches.
It will then become possible to identify certain statistical correlations which will allow us, with a bit of luck, to avoid a new Covid-19 type episode – or worse. Carlson therefore ends on a decidedly optimistic note. “We are closer than ever to predicting and preventing the next pandemic“, he says. “This study is a big step in that direction, but now we will have to start working on the most complicated part of the problem.”, he concludes.
The text of the study is available here.