EcoHealth Alliance Maps Global Distribution of ‘Missing’ Viruses Across Wildlife Species

Scientists Identify Highest Risk Mammal Species and Locations for Emerging Viruses

NEW YORK – June 21, 2017 EcoHealth Alliance, a global nonprofit organization working at the intersection of environmental, animal and public health, announced a paper published online in the journal Nature, highlighting the first comprehensive analysis of all viruses known to infect mammals. The study shows that bats carry a significantly higher proportion of viruses able to infect people than any other group of mammals; and it identifies the species and geographic regions on the planet with the highest number of yet-to-be discovered, or ‘missing’, viruses likely to infect people. This work provides a new way to predict where and how we should work to identify and pre-empt the next potential viral pandemic before it emerges.

The study team built a comprehensive database of all known viruses infecting over 750 mammal species and around 600 viruses. They used mathematical models to identify the host species characteristics associated with having a larger number of viruses capable of infecting people (zoonotic viruses). They show that zoonotic potential is predicted by a host species evolutionary relatedness to humans, the degree of human-wildlife contact, and other factors including the taxonomic order it belongs to. They used this analysis to demonstrate for the first time that, after correcting for uneven research effort and other variables, bats harbor the highest proportion of zoonotic viruses of any mammal group. “In 2005, our team showed that SARS originates in bats. Ever since that finding, scientists have wondered whether bats are ‘special’ reservoirs for viruses.  We now show definitively that bats carry a higher proportion of yet-to-be-identified viruses of potential risk to people than any other mammal group,” says EcoHealth Alliance’s President and senior author on the study, Dr. Peter Daszak. The paper points out that viral discovery research on wild bats could help prevent pandemics. Bats are important to ecosystem health, through pollinating tropical fruits, removing insect crop pests and disease vectors, and providing other critical ecosystem services. While the data show bats carry potentially important viruses, it’s important to remember that the only way these viruses can emerge in people is if we make contact with bats, alter their environment, hunt them or otherwise disturb their ecology. Effective bat conservation can help reduce the risk of zoonotic disease through better understanding and effective management of human-bat interactions.

The study uses the analyses to produce detailed maps showing where on the planet we are most likely to find as-yet-undiscovered viruses that could emerge in people, or ‘missing zoonoses.’ These maps differ among mammal groups. For example, hotspots of ‘missing zoonoses’ for bats are in South and Central America and parts of Asia, for primates in tropical Central America, Africa, and southeast Asia. “The holy grail in pandemic prevention is to understand where the next zoonotic virus is likely to emerge and from what species. Our study provides the first ever predictive map of where these undiscovered zoonoses can be found across the world. This information is critical to prioritize surveillance to identify and stop the next pandemic,” says Dr. Kevin Olival, lead author on the study.  Finally, the paper provides a new way to estimate how likely a newly-discovered virus from wildlife could be to infect people.  It shows that measuring the evolutionary breadth of its host species can predict its potential to infect people. This approach is now being used as part of a multi-country project to identify new viruses in wildlife and help prevent their emergence – the USAID PREDICT program.  This work was funded by grants R01AI079231 and R01AI110964 from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and from the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats program.

About EcoHealth Alliance

Building on over 45 years of groundbreaking science, EcoHealth Alliance is a global, nonprofit organization dedicated to pandemic prevention and ecosystem health. Approximately 60 percent of emerging infectious diseases like Ebola, HIV, Zika, SARS, and MERS originated in animals before spilling over to human populations. Using environmental and health data covering the past 60 years, EcoHealth Alliance scientists created the first-ever, global disease hotspots map that identified at-risk regions to determine where field programs can help predict and prevent the next pandemic crisis. That work is the foundation of EcoHealth Alliance’s rigorous, science-based approach working in more than 30 countries worldwide. EcoHealth Alliance has a strong working relationship with Bat Conservation International to promote the conservation of bats and recognition of their critical role on our planet.

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Bat Conservation International

Bat Conservation International is a nonprofit organization with members in 60 countries and a growing range of international partners. Founded in 1982, BCI uses science, education and conservation action to protect bats and their habitats around the world. Learn more about bats and their critical role in maintaining healthy ecosystems and human economies at BCI’s website: