The COVID-19 pandemic that continues to wreak havoc on human health and economies is proving that continued exploitation of animals in the wild harms more than their lives.
In a new study, scientists assembled a dataset of the 142 known viruses that spill over from animals to humans and the species implicated as potential hosts. Using the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, they examined patterns in those species’ abundance, extinction risks and underlying causes for declines. Among the findings published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Threatened and endangered species whose population declines are linked to wildlife trade, habitat degradation and hunting were predicted to host twice as many viruses that could pass between animals and people, compared to species with populations decreasing for other reasons.
“We need to find ways to coexist safely with wildlife, as they have no shortages of viruses to give us,” says lead author Christine Kreuder Johnson and director of the EpiCenter for Disease Dynamics at the One Health Institute at the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
With bats repeatedly implicated as a possible source of the new virus, researchers at the Chicago Field Museum found that different groups of bats have their own unique strains of coronavirus that don’t appear to harm them, revealing that bats and coronaviruses have been evolving together for millions of years, that a vast number of different coronaviruses exist—potentially as many as bat species—and that most pose no threat. The danger comes to other animals if the viruses have opportunities to jump between species.
The fact that bats carry coronaviruses is no reason to vilify them or call for their destruction in the name of human health, warn wildlife experts. Bats are important for global biodiversity and ecosystem health, and many bat species have adapted to living safely alongside us as beneficial neighbors.
“There’s abundant evidence that bats are important for ecosystem functioning, whether it be for the pollination of flowers, dispersal of fruits or the consumption of insects, particularly insects that are responsible for transmission of different diseases to humans,” says Steve Goodman, a biologist at the museum and an author of the study published in Scientific Reports. “The good they do for us outweighs any potential negatives.”