The risk of bat-borne viruses increases as people encroach on their habitats, according to Reuters study

  • A study by Reuters data analysis found that as more people invade bat habitats, the risk of viruses that can jump from bats to humans is expected to increase.
  • Viruses can be transported from bats to humans through intermediate hosts, such as pigs, or directly through human contact with bat feces, blood, or saliva.
  • Viruses that come from bats have been among the deadliest disease outbreaks of the past half-decade, such as the coronavirus which has so far killed more than 7 million people.

For millennia, bat viruses have been hiding in the forests of West Africa, India, South America and other parts of the world. But, undisturbed, they posed little threat to humanity.

Not anymore, a new analysis of Reuters data has found. Today, as more people invade bat habitat, bat-borne pathogens represent an epidemiological minefield in 113 countries, where there is a high risk that a virus will jump species and infect humans.

Bats are linked to many of the deadliest epidemics to have occurred in the last half-century, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed at least 7 million people and has its roots in a family of bat-borne coronaviruses. Though scientists are still trying to figure out how that virus came to infect humans, dozens of other outbreaks can be traced to human incursions into areas thick with bats.


To examine where the next pandemic might emerge, Reuters used two decades of epidemic and environmental data to pinpoint the places on the planet most vulnerable to “zoonotic spillover” – the term for when a virus hops between species. Viruses pass from bats to humans via an intermediate host, such as a pig, chimpanzee, or civet, or more directly through human contact with bat urine, feces, blood, or saliva.

A bat from the University of Brasilia

A bat researcher from the University of Brasilia holds a captured bat in Brasilia, Brazil on June 28, 2021. (REUTERS/Adriano Machado)


Reuters reporters spoke to dozens of scientists, read extensive academic research and traveled to bat-rich countries around the world to find out how human destruction of wilderness areas is amplifying pandemic risk. Our data analysis, the first of its kind, has revealed a global economic system that is colliding with nature and putting people’s health at risk, as bat-rich forests are cleared to make way for farms, mines , roads and other developments.

Here are the key takeaways from our review:

* Reuters found more than 9 million square km on Earth where conditions in 2020 were ripe for the spread of a bat-borne virus, which could trigger another pandemic. These areas, which we’ve dubbed “jump zones,” stretch across the entire globe, covering 6 percent of Earth’s land mass. They are mostly tropical locations rich in bats and undergoing rapid urbanization.

* Nearly 1.8 billion people – more than one in five people – lived in areas at high risk of spillovers in 2020. This is 57% more people living in spillover zones than two decades earlier, increasing the likelihood that a deadly bat virus could spill over. Additionally, these people live closer together, increasing the chances that a disease outbreak will develop into a rapidly spreading global pandemic.

* Reuters analysis found heightened spillover risk in locations like China, where COVID-19 emerged; neighboring Laos, where scientists have identified wildlife as the closest relatives of the virus responsible for the current pandemic; India, where half a billion people live in rapidly expanding jump zones, the most of any nation; and Brazil, which has more land at risk than any other country, as humans ravage the Amazon.

* The catalyst for epidemics is not the behavior of bats, scientists say, but our own. The thirst for resources — iron ore, gold, cocoa and rubber, to name a few — is driving the unchecked development of wilderness areas and increasing the risk of global pandemics through increased contact with animals, scientists say. The world’s jump zones have lost 21 percent of their tree cover in nearly two decades, double the global rate.


* Pressure on once-remote woodlands gives viruses a chance to spread and mutate as they jump between animal species and eventually into humans. The deadly Nipah virus has been transmitted from Asian fruit bats to pigs and from pigs to people in recent decades. Nipah has more recently been shown to be able to infect humans directly through contact with the bodily fluids of bats.

* Humanity is destroying crucial habitats before scientists have time to study them. Not only is development bringing people into closer contact with pathogens that may have pandemic potential; it also eliminates any secrets that nature may hold that could be valuable to science. For example, the ability of bats to live with multiple viruses, without succumbing to many that could be deadly to other mammals, could provide important insights into the creation of vaccines, medicines or other innovations.

* Governments and businesses are doing little to assess risk. In bat-rich Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana – where Reuters found the pandemic risk to be among the highest in the world – pending applications would double the land used for exploration and mining, totaling 400,000 sq km, an area larger than Germany. Almost a third of this expansion would be in existing jump areas, where the risk of spillover is already high. While these countries require mining companies to assess the potential environmental damage new concessions could cause, none require companies to assess spillover risk.


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