Nigel Farage criticises China for coronavirus 'cover up'

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The exact source of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) remains a mystery, but the pathogen most likely jumped to humans from the horseshoe bat. The species is known to carry a wide array of coronaviruses, many of which share genetic similarities to the strain behind COVID-19. A team of researchers from Italy, the US and New Zealand has now identified China has the highest concentration of hotspots where humans may come into contact – directly or indirectly – with these infected bats.

A study published today (May 31) in the journal Nature Food, has analysed how human activity and the use of land has heightened the risk of contracting pathogens from wildlife.

The destruction of forests, rapid urban sprawl and industrial-scale livestock rearing all increase the risk of zoonotic viruses infecting humans.

Zoonotic viruses are the kind that have made the jump from an animal host to humans.

To date, only seven coronaviruses are known to infect humans, three of which have been responsible for the SARS, MERS and COVID-19 pandemic in recent years.

The new study used remote sensing to pinpoint potential hotspots where known bat habitats intersect with farmland, human settlements and forest fragmentation.

Maria Cristina Rulli, a professor in hydrology and water and food security at the Politecnico di Milano, said: “The analyses aimed to identify the possible emergence of new hotspots in response to an increase in one of three land use attributes, highlighting both the areas that could become suitable for spillover and the type of land-use change that could induce hotspot activation.

“We hope these results could be useful for identifying region-specific targeted interventions needed to increase resilience to coronavirus spillovers.”

The report comes amid the tragic death toll of COVID-19, which has infected more than 169.5 million and killed more than 3.5 million.

According to the study, most of the current hotspots are found in China.

China is already believed to be ground zero for the ongoing pandemic, with COVID-19 first emerging in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, late in 2019.

The country has a growing demand for meat, which is driving the mass-scale rearing of livestock.

Industrial-scale livestock rearing is problematic because it is highly susceptible to the outbreak of disease.

The H7N7 “bird flu” virus, for instance, has been associated with intensive poultry production, leading to countries like the Netherlands to cull some 30 million birds.

Paolo D’Odorico, a professor of environmental science, policy and management at Univesity of California Berkeley, said: “Land use changes can have an important impact on human health, both because we are modifying the environment, but also because they can increase our exposure to zoonotic disease.

“Every formal land use change should be evaluated not only for the environmental and social impacts on resources such as carbon stocks, microclimate and water availability, but also for the potential chain reactions that could impact human health.”

There is a risk parts of Japan, the north Philippines and China south of Shanghai could also become new hotspots due to forest fragmentation.

The demand for livestock, meanwhile, could turn parts of Thailand and Indochina into hotspots as well.

The destruction and fragmentation of forests increase the likelihood of zoonotic pathogens spreading by shifting the balance in wildlife species.

So-called “specialist” species that require specific habitat conditions to survive start to dwindle, allowing so-called “generalist” species to thrive.

Generalists adapt better to the changing habitats and horseshoe bats happen to fit the bill.

Consequently, researchers expect to see these potentially infected animals in areas where human activity is regular.

Previous research has suggested the spread of the Ebola virus in Africa is connected to the destruction of habitats and forests.

Professor D’Odorico said: “By creating conditions that are disadvantageous to specialist species, generalist species are able to thrive.

“While we are unable to directly trace the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from wildlife to humans, we do know that the type of land-use change that brings humans into the picture is typically associated with the presence of these bats who are known to carry the virus.”

One way to prevent future outbreaks of disease is to restore wildlife habitats by creating continuous areas of forest cover for specialist species to thrive.

Professor D’Odorico added: “Human health is intertwined with environmental health and also animal health.

“Our study is one of the first to connect the dots and really drill down into the geographic data on land use to see how humans are coming into contact with species that might be carriers.”

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