Humans pass more viruses to animals than we catch from them, scientists say


By AGENCY

Humans pass on more viruses to animals than we catch from them, according to UCL researchers. Photo: AFP

From chikungunya to echinococcosis to bird flu, animals can transmit many diseases to humans. But the reverse is also true. In fact, British research shows that we too pass viruses on to wild and domestic animals.

Researchers at University College London made this discovery after analysing nearly 12 million viral genomes deposited in public databases. They were thus able to reconstruct the trajectories where viruses jumped from one host to another to infect another vertebrate species, within the framework of around 30 viral families.

Human health is closely linked to that of wildlife and ecosystems. Viruses, bacteria and parasites can take many twists and turns before infecting our species, and thus becoming what are commonly known as zoonoses. When these pathogens cross the barrier between animals and humans, they can trigger epidemics and even pandemics, as was the case with Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2).

Until now, zoonotic transmission was thought to occur at the expense of humans, who have generally been seen as a sink for pathogens rather than a source. But the authors of this research found that humans frequently spread viruses to wild, farmed and domestic animals. In fact, they identified twice as many human-to-animal infections than the other way round. Preventing future pandemics?

This highlights the considerable impact we humans have on the animals around us. In a statement, the study’s lead author, PhD student Cedric Tan (UCL Genetics Institute and Francis Crick Institute) said: “When animals catch viruses from humans, this can not only harm the animal and potentially pose a conservation threat to the species, but it may also cause new problems for humans by impacting food security if large numbers of livestock need to be culled to prevent an epidemic, as has been happening over recent years with the H5N1 bird flu strain.”

This phenomenon is all the more worrying given that, with each change of host, from one species to another, viral genomes are modified to better adapt to their new host. “If a virus carried by humans infects a new animal species, the virus might continue to thrive even if eradicated among humans, or even evolve new adaptations before it winds up infecting humans again,” explains Tan.

The scientists hope that their findings, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, will encourage more research into the impact of human-transmitted viruses on wildlife. Study co-author professor Francois Balloux (UCL Genetics Institute) said: “By surveying and monitoring transmission of viruses between animals and humans, in either direction, we can better understand viral evolution and hopefully be more prepared for future outbreaks and epidemics of novel illnesses, while also aiding conservation efforts.”

Hopefully, this will enable us to anticipate emerging infections, before one of them becomes a pandemic. – AFP Relaxnews

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