Some scientists fear that the China-Laos Railway could spark another global health crisis after COVID-19 because the accelerated development along its once-remote trajectory is causing tree loss and bringing humans into closer contact with bats.
Deep in the forests of Laos, China has built a state-of-the-art high-speed railway.
The link is supposed to bring prosperity. Some scientists fear it could also bring out something else: a new pandemic.
China already has been the source of two pandemics since the turn of the century, both linked to a family of viruses found in bats across South-east Asia.
The Asian titan is now disrupting habitats in neighbouring Laos that are home to bats hosting similar pathogens. These include coronaviruses closely related to the one that caused the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic that has killed at least seven million people worldwide.
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The China-Laos Railway is a project of Beijing’s historic Belt and Road infrastructure initiative to tie the world to China.
Following decades of Chinese-led development in Laos, the railway crosses the border via the Friendship Tunnel, at the edge of China’s Xishuangbanna prefecture. It then extends 422km to the Laotian capital of Vientiane.
Along its way southwards, it cuts through rich rainforest, leafy mountains, and previously untouched karst – intricate landscapes of soluble-rock peaks and caverns that are a preferred habitat of the region’s bats and have long been a barrier between them and human settlements.
For Laos, a one-party communist state with close ties to its giant neighbour, the railway is meant to spur development, boost tourism, and forge even greater links with China. Since the train began operating in December 2021, it has carried more than 14 million passengers and over 18 million tonnes of goods, according to the Chinese government.
“The Laos-China railway corridor has greatly benefited Laos in numerous ways, particularly the government’s effort to develop its economy and upgrade the living standard of the people,” wrote an unidentified official from the Laotian embassy in Washington in an e-mail to Reuters.
Some scientists say the rail line is worrisome because development along its once-remote trajectory is accelerating tree loss and bringing humans into closer contact with bats. The train also enables the fast movement of people and goods from rural to populous areas, where viruses can easily multiply and spread. That includes people or goods that may have had contact with live animals in a wildlife trade that has been linked to past outbreaks.
“This is the lesson,” said Dr Chris Newman, a biologist at Oxford University who studied Covid-19’s origins. “It was infected people who took the virus to every corner of the world – so quickly that there was absolutely nothing we could do to contain it.”
The embassy official didn’t answer detailed questions about the disruption of Laotian bat habitats and the health risks that could arise because of the railway, but said: “We have never before heard of such information or come across any reliable reports that identify Laos as among the highest-risk places in the world.”
The official added: “We would like to reassure you that there is no such issue happening in Laos.”
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