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Andreas Kluth

Zoonotic Spillover Is the Apocalypse You’ll Be Hearing About a Lot

Global warming is upending natural habitats, unleashing new plagues on humankind.

The next virus is landing.

The next virus is landing.

Photographer: Bloomberg via Getty Images

The term “zoonotic spillover” might sound either reassuringly geeky or deceptively innocuous — like a sticky mess involving a melted ice cream cone between the monkey cage and the aquarium. It refers, in reality, to one of the greatest dangers to humanity. As such, it is neither more nor less menacing than climate change, but a direct consequence of it. 

The word zoonosis comes from the Greek for “animal disease.” It applies to pathogens that can jump both between critters and from them to us. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, hopped to humans from chimps, for example. MERS, a respiratory virus, spread to us from dromedary camels. Ebola probably came from apes, monkeys or bats, or all of them. In similar ways, we’ve imported hundreds of other ills from the wild kingdom — not least, SARS-CoV-2, which we also picked up from bats.