Smith Uganda
Smith and colleague collect samples from poultry in a village in Uganda

Global Health Program Spotlight on Tom Smith

A UCLA biologist researches the connection between climate change and coronaviruses

As an evolutionary biologist, Professor Smith has spent the past 35 years studying tropical rainforests worldwide. His work includes how biodiversity is generated and maintained in tropical rainforests and the ecology of zoonotic diseases such as avian flu, monkeypox, Ebola, and now SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus that causes COVID-19).

GHP recently caught up with Professor Smith to learn about his ongoing research. He and several UCLA colleagues are planning to map the environmental drivers of coronavirus prevalence in bats, in order to predict and reduce the risk of future “spillover” events from bats to humans in Central Africa (e.g., consumption of bat meat, and destruction of natural environments that bring wild bats and humans into greater contact). As Professor Smith explained, “SARS-CoV-2, which likely originated in a wild animal market in China, is 96% genetically similar to a coronavirus found in horseshoe bats. Central Africa’s Congo Basin is a global hotspot for coronaviruses, and a place where bats are regularly consumed; however, there are currently no risk maps of coronavirus prevalence and where spillover events are likely.” Dr. Smith’s research will attempt to identify current coronavirus hotspots, predict spillover events under current and future climate conditions, and assess where human populations are most at risk of spillover given factors such as prevalence of animal consumption. The hope is that the results can be used to predict future spillover events across Central Africa, and therefore encourage more focused monitoring in regions at high risk for future epidemics.

For more information, read Professor Smith's recent Op-Ed on pandemics and climate change.

The latest UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine's Global Health Program (GHP) newsletter features Tom Smith and his ongoing research on the connection between climate change and coronaviruses. The full article is presented below. September 2020.