Host and viral traits predict zoonotic spillover from mammals

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Abstract

Analysis of a comprehensive database of mammalian host-virus relationships reveals that both the total number of viruses that infect a given species and the proportion likely to be zoonotic are predictable and that this enables identification of mammalian species and geographic locations where novel zoonoses are likely to be found.

The majority of human emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, with viruses that originate in wild mammals of particular concern (for example, HIV, Ebola and SARS)1,2,3. Understanding patterns of viral diversity in wildlife and determinants of successful cross-species transmission, or spillover, are therefore key goals for pandemic surveillance programs4. However, few analytical tools exist to identify which host species are likely to harbour the next human virus, or which viruses can cross species boundaries5,6,7. Here we conduct a comprehensive analysis of mammalian host-virus relationships and show that both the total number of viruses that infect a given species and the proportion likely to be zoonotic are predictable. After controlling for research effort, the proportion of zoonotic viruses per species is predicted by phylogenetic relatedness to humans, host taxonomy and human population within a species range—which may reflect human-wildlife contact. We demonstrate that bats harbour a significantly higher proportion of zoonotic viruses than all other mammalian orders. We also identify the taxa and geographic regions with the largest estimated number of ‘missing viruses' and ‘missing zoonoses' and therefore of highest value for future surveillance. We then show that phylogenetic host breadth and other viral traits are significant predictors of zoonotic potential, providing a novel framework to assess if a newly discovered mammalian virus could infect people.

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