CHINA will "very likely" spark another coronavirus pandemic as humans encroach on bat territory, a study suggests.
The country tops the list of several "hotspots" identified by scientists where conditions are "ripe" for new deadly viruses to spread.
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They fear the diseases could easily transmit from bats to humans as growing demand for meat products has driven industrial livestock farming.
Forest fragmentation, agricultural expansion and livestock production are bringing us into closer contact with horseshoe bats – which are known to carry zoonotic diseases, including Covid-19.
The creatures also carry SARS-CoV-2, MERS and CoV Ebola.
Researchers reckon concentrated livestock production is a recipe for disaster as it brings large populations of genetically similar, often immune-suppressed animals, that are highly vulnerable to disease outbreaks.
The other major global hotspots outside China include the Indonesian island of Java, Bhutan, east Nepal, northern Bangladesh, the Indian state of Kerala and northeast India.
But also on the list of potential 'danger zones' – some "coldspots" at risk of turning hot – are areas in southern China, Thailand, France and even the UK.
Experts put the risks down to global changes in land use by humans.
The study, published in Nature, was carried out by a team at the University of California, Berkeley, Polytechnic University of Milan, and Massey University of New Zealand.
They analysed land use patterns in the horseshoe bat's range – which runs from Western Europe through to Southeast Asia.
Forest fragmentation, human settlement and agricultural and livestock production were compared to known horseshoe bat habitats to establish potential hotspots.
These were where the habitat is favourable to bat species in the horseshoe family and where viruses could jump from animals to humans.
Study co-author Maria Cristina Rulli at Polytechnic University of Milan said: "[We're] highlighting both the areas that could become suitable for spillover and the type of land use change that could induce hot spot activation.
"We hope these results could be useful for identifying region-specific targeted interventions needed to increase resilience to coronavirus spillovers."
The researchers previously linked forest fragmentation and habitat destruction in Africa to outbreaks of the Ebola virus in a 2017 study.
It is still not known where SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid-19 – originated.
Theories of a potential lab leak had initially been dismissed by many as a "conspiracy theory", but circumstantial evidence is now mounting as US President Joe Biden ordered "redoubled investigation".
British intelligence now believes the idea that the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, towards the end of 2019 is "feasible".
It upgraded the likeliness from "remote" last month, reports The Sunday Times.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) specialises in bat coronaviruses, and its BSL-4 labs are the only areas in the world where scientists are permitted to study diseases that have no cure.
A researcher from the institute claimed fangs went through his rubber gloves "like a needle" while collecting samples in a cave packed with infected bats.
'WET MARKETS ARE A THREAT'
The lab is located just a stones throw from the Huannan Seafood Market, where the virus was first found.
This has led many to speculate that Covid originated from the poorly regulated market where live animals are sold.
Experts and campaigners last week warned The Sun Online a mix of the ongoing proliferation of wet markets in China, potentially risky lab research, and a lack of transparency could all potentially cause another pandemic.
German scientist Dr Roland Wiesendanger, from the University of Hamburg, said: "Wet markets continue to be a threat.
"However, an even more severe threat results from risky biotech research with highly pathogenic viruses and the creation of new chimeric viruses with increased transmission capabilities and higher mortality rates for humans."
Pressure is mounting on the Communist Party to learn lessons from the pandemic and come clean – but Beijing continues to try to shift the blame.
China has long been accused of attempting to cover up or distort its role in the story of Covid.
Chinese officials and the lab itself deny all allegations.
British MPs are continuing to demand a fresh investigation, after first calling for one when speaking to The Sun Online in January.
Tin Tugendhat MP, chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, said: "The silence coming from Wuhan is troubling. We need to open the crypt and see what happened to be able to protect ourselves in the future.
"That means starting an investigation, along with partners around the world and in the WHO."
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