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Preserving animal habitat could prevent future pandemics, study says

Preserving and restoring animal habitat could prevent future pandemics, according to new research that says food shortages force bats into agricultural areas where they can co-mingle with humans. Photo courtesy of Cornell University
Preserving and restoring animal habitat could prevent future pandemics, according to new research that says food shortages force bats into agricultural areas where they can co-mingle with humans. Photo courtesy of Cornell University

Nov. 16 (UPI) -- New research is calling for the preservation and restoration of natural habitats to prevent future pandemics.

A study, published Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature, showed that without abundant food sources, animals abandon their habitats and risk spreading disease to domesticated animals and humans.

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Cornell University scientists, who authored the research, focused on fruit bats in Australia between the years of 1996 and 2020 to understand the risk of animals transmitting disease from one species to another.

According to the researchers, every viral pandemic since the 1990s has been caused by what they call a pathogen "spillover" from animals to humans with two driving factors. The first is habitat loss, which pushes animals into agricultural areas, and the second is climate-induced food shortages.

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"Right now, the world is focused on how we can stop the next pandemic," Raina Plowright, professor in the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health at Cornell University, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, preserving or restoring nature is rarely part of the discussion."

During the years when food was abundant over winter months, researchers discovered the bats remained in their native forests and away from human communities. During food shortages, the bats moved closer to agricultural areas and humans where they could excrete more virus.

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In agricultural areas, pathogens can spread when urine and feces drop to the ground where horses are grazing, which can lead to Hendra virus infections. Horses have the potential to spread the virus to people, which has a 57% fatality rate.

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Other deadly viruses, such as SARS, Nipah and possibly Ebola can also spill from bats to humans, sometimes through an intermediate host.

Information on bat behavior, where they live, how they reproduce and where they get their food was found to be in line with records over the years on climate, habitat loss and environmental conditions, according to the study.

"We put these data into the network models and found that we could predict spillover clusters based on climate, the availability of food and the location of bats," Plowright said. "We show that when remaining habitat produces food, spillover stops, and therefore a sustainable way to stop these events could be to preserve and restore critical habitat."

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