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Harvard scientist says climate change could be fueling recent boom in devastating outbreaks

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In recent years, emerging infectious diseases like SARS, Ebola, and, now, COVID-19, have become more prevalent.

This troubling trend has some scientists wondering what role climate change could be playing in this phenomenon.

“The best evidence that we have is that the number of these disease emergence events is going up,” said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, the Interim Director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The question one would reasonably ask is why, and it’s pretty clear that we’re changing how we relate to life on Earth.”

Bernstein says it’s too early to know if climate change is playing a role in the spread of coronavirus, but believes is has to be considered.

“You realize that climate change could be driving this, and I think the smart response would be that we don’t want to play Russian roulette here," he said. "We’ve had several shots across the bow...HIV, influenza, SARS, MERS, COVID, and a host of others.”

Some of this could be because wild animals are on the move, looking for new habitats as climates change. As a result, they’re interacting with new populations of people.

“Wild animals have viruses in their bodies all the time, which don’t necessarily make them sick, but when they get into people, they make us sick,” explained Bernstein.

Another consideration is poor air quality attributed to the burning of fossil fuels. This can make people susceptible to getting sick -- particularly with respiratory infections that have been so prevalent in the past 20 years.

"There’s lots of research showing that people who breathe more air pollution are more likely to get sick from respiratory infections and more likely to die, and that includes young children,” added Bernstein.

There’s a lot at stake when it comes to how humanity deals with these disturbing issues, according to Bernstein.

“The bottom line is that I don’t think anyone having lived through this moment, in this time with COVID, would think that it’s really wise to continue business as usual," he said.

Bernstein said there’s no way to predict if other pathogens will emerge in the coming years, but that it’s highly probable. He believes in this era of globalization and urbanization, that if anything does pop up, it will spread quickly if it’s not met with a swift response.

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