In fact, the researchers found that China is the global hotspot of simultaneously high forest fragmentation, livestock density, and human settlement, making the country uniquely vulnerable to the emergence of new coronaviruses.
In particular, the researchers said, China’s growing demand for meat products and the resulting increase in industrial livestock farming is particularly concerning, since the methods involved in large-scale meat production bring together large populations of animals with low genetic diversity and often suppressed immune systems – perfect for a virus to run rampant.
However, the study also identified many places outside of China that are at risk of becoming hot spots. As forest fragmentation continues in Japan and the north Philippines, the likelihood of these regions seeing their own coronavirus hot spots increases too.
Similarly, parts of Southeast Asia and Thailand are vulnerable to becoming hot spots as humans and livestock take over the natural landscape.
How can we stop a new coronavirus from emerging?
The researchers hope that their analysis will provide insight into how to prevent the emergence of a new coronavirus pandemic.
“The analyses aimed to identify … the type of land use change that could induce hot spot activation,” said study co-author Maria Cristina Rulli, a professor in hydrology and water and food security at the Polytechnic University of Milan. “We hope these results could be useful for identifying region-specific targeted interventions needed to increase resilience to coronavirus spillovers.”
One key recommendation is to try to curb forest fragmentation, creating continuous areas of forest and wildlife corridors so that specialist species can survive. Although China has been a world-leader in tree-planting efforts over the past two decades, they mostly have not been resulting in these large, contiguous forested areas, which the researchers explain are more important than the overall number of trees.
“Human health is intertwined with environmental health and also animal health,” D’Odorico explained. “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.”