New Research Points to the Protection of Wild Animals and Their Habitats as the Key to Protecting People.

03.26.24
From: Ecological countermeasures to prevent pathogen spillover and subsequent pandemics

Austin, TX (March 26, 2024) – Protecting wild animals and their habitats can reduce the risk of disease spillover and resulting pandemics, according to a new research paper in Nature Communications written by a team that includes Bat Conservation International (BCI) scientists. The authors describe how to reduce the potential for disease transfer from animals to people by protecting and restoring habitat, and by managing wildlife-human contact. These efforts are crucial for pandemic prevention because ongoing changes in human land use increase human contact with wildlife across the globe.

The transfer of disease from wildlife to people has become a great concern since the Covid-19 pandemic, which is attributed to the spillover of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from an unknown animal host. Zoonotic disease transfer can occur if people are exposed and become infected with pathogens from wild or domestic animals.

“This important new study uses bat conservation to showcase actions that help prevent spillover, which ultimately lowers pandemic risk,” says Winifred Frick, BCI’s Chief Scientist. “This is a win-win opportunity for protecting people and wildlife, including bats.”

Instead of working to prevent pandemics from occurring, global health policy is currently reactive — focusing on disease spread between humans once it emerges, ultimately aiming to reduce the impact. The ecological protections described in this paper are preventative — reducing the chances for disease spillover before it reaches humans in the first place. Authors explain that this shift in planning could save money that would be spent on a pandemic response, make disease prevention more equitable, and contribute to global sustainability goals — such as reducing the impacts of climate change, preserving biodiversity, and maintaining critical ecosystem services. Since climate change and biodiversity loss increase wildlife stress and the viral shedding that can lead to spillover events, addressing these issues ultimately supports public health. 

“Protecting where bats eat and sleep has outsized health benefits. It reduces bat stress during energy-intensive periods, like when they are raising their young, that can lead to increased virus shedding,” says Teague O’Mara, BCI’s Director of Conservation Evidence. “Shifting the focus to minimizing human-bat interactions during sensitive periods and maintaining and restoring healthy environments lowers spillover risk.”

Co-authors of this paper hail from Cornell University, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of Oxford, Muni University in Uganda, Kerala Agricultural University in India, the American Museum of Natural History, the University of Benin in Nigeria, Conservation International, and many more. This collaborative team includes research scientists, public health experts, disease ecologists, environmental scientists, conservation biologists, and public policy experts from across the globe.

The group’s collective call is for policymakers around the world to consider ecological countermeasures to pandemics, to coordinate efforts across disciplines, and to determine which practices are most effective at reducing pandemic occurrence within a One Health framework. Enacting recommendations will require teamwork across industries and stakeholders, including Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

BCI hopes this study will increase public awareness that protecting bats and their habitat has a positive impact on human health. When wild animals like bats have sufficient natural resources, including undisturbed roosts, food, and water, they shed less virus and have less contact with people. In healthy ecosystems, bats provide economically important ecosystem services such as pest consumption and pollination. Bat conservation protects both bats and humans by producing a safer, healthier world.

Bat Conservation International is a global conservation organization dedicated to ending bat extinctions. Bat Conservation International works worldwide to conserve caves, restore critical habitats in danger, and ensure the survival of the world’s bat species. For more information, visit batcon.org.

Media Contact: Kathryn Slater  

Tel: 512.327.9721 Ext. 463  

Email: kslater@batcon.org