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Climate Change May Mean More Zoonotic Diseases, More Pandemics

May 23, 2022

by Travis Decaminada

Key Takeaways:

  • Deforestation, habitat destruction, urban sprawl, and the climate crisis have increased the chances of humans encountering wildlife, and thus the chances that a virus will jump species to infect a human – as was the case with Covid-19.
  • New research asserts that there are likely to be more than 4,000 such events within the next 50 years, some of which may have the potential to cause another pandemic.
  • Experts claim that efforts to fight climate change may also lead to a reduction in the spread of zoonotic diseases.

The climate crisis is both top of mind for insurers and for Verisk’s Emerging Issues team. We recently posted articles discussing how climate change has been linked with more intense and frequent wildfires, rising sea levels, and detrimental impacts on human well-being. Now, new research asserts that climate change will also lead to the evolution of thousands of new animal viruses over the next fifty years; some of which may have the potential to cross the species barrier and infect humans, e.g., zoonotic diseases.1

More Interactions, More Viruses

Per new research, there are currently ~10,000 virus species with the capability of infecting humans.2 However, the vast majority of these viruses tend to stay within certain animal populations. As Earth warms and as society continues to push into nature, more interactions between humans and animals are likely to occur, thus increasing the likelihood of the transfer of zoonotic diseases (a mechanism known as “zoonotic spillover”). Once a human is infected, a virus may then evolve to become more virulent or contagious, as we’ve seen with Covid-19. Ultimately, if the researchers are proven correct, over the next fifty years there are likely to be approximately 4,000 cross-species transmission events.3

Concerningly, the researchers also warn that even if Earth were to cease warming today, the above estimated increase in viral transmission is still likely to occur. Though, fighting the climate crisis now would still ensure a better future for humankind.4

Pandemics

Other research makes clear that many of the contributing causes of the climate crisis also increase the risk of zoonotic spillover and may eventually catalyze another pandemic.5 Taking certain actions now to fight climate change, such as preventing deforestation and limiting pollution, may also help ward off future pandemics. Per experts from Harvard’s School of Public Health:

Some progress has been made in addressing the risk of pathogen spillover from animals into people. But largely we still view the environment, and life on earth, as separate. We can and must do better if we want to prevent the next infectious pandemic. That means we must combat climate change and do far more to safeguard the diversity of life on earth, which is being lost at a rate not seen since the dinosaurs—and more than half of life on earth—went extinct 65 million years ago.6

See Also:

More information about zoonotic diseases from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

More information about zoonotic diseases from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Related Posts:

Climate Change in 2022 - Weather, Health, and Economics (Mar 14, 2022)

Climate Change in 2022 - Examining Mitigation Efforts (May 06, 2022)

  1. AP – “Increased infectious disease risk likely from climate change”. https://apnews.com/article/climate-science-health-environment-infectious-diseases-a354d82963fc2bd246e7be51d0033af9
  2. Nature – “Climate change increases cross-species viral transmission risk”. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-022-04788-w
  3. IBID
  4. IBID
  5. Harvard – “Coronavirus and Climate Change”. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/c-change/subtopics/coronavirus-and-climate-change/
  6. IBID

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