Predictors of human-infective RNA virus discovery in the United States, China, and Africa, an ecological study

Feifei Zhang*, Margo Chase-Topping, Chuan-Guo Guo, Mark E.J. Woolhouse

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Background: The variation in the pathogen type as well as the spatial heterogeneity of predictors make the generality of any associations with pathogen discovery debatable. Our previous work confirmed that the association of a group of predictors differed across different types of RNA viruses, yet there have been no previous comparisons of the specific predictors for RNA virus discovery in different regions. The aim of the current study was to close the gap by investigating whether predictors of discovery rates within three regions—the United States, China, and Africa— differ from one another and from those at the global level. 

Methods: Based on a comprehensive list of human-infective RNA viruses, we collated published data on first discovery of each species in each region. We used a Poisson boosted regression tree (BRT) model to examine the relationship between virus discovery and 33 predictors representing climate, socio-economics, land use, and biodiversity across each region separately. The discovery probability in three regions in 2010–2019 was mapped using the fitted models and historical predictors. 

Results: The numbers of human-infective virus species discovered in the United States, China, and Africa up to 2019 were 95, 80, and 107 respectively, with China lagging behind the other two regions. In each region, discoveries were clustered in hotspots. BRT modelling suggested that in all three regions RNA virus discovery was better predicted by land use and socioeconomic variables than climatic variables and biodiversity, although the relative importance of these predictors varied by region. Map of virus discovery probability in 2010–2019 indicated several new hotspots outside historical high-risk areas. Most new virus species since 2010 in each region (6/6 in the United States, 19/19 in China, 12/19 in Africa) were discovered in highrisk areas as predicted by our model. 

Conclusions: The drivers of spatiotemporal variation in virus discovery rates vary in different regions of the world. Within regions virus discovery is driven mainly by land-use and socioeconomic variables; climate and biodiversity variables are consistently less important predictors than at a global scale. Potential new discovery hotspots in 2010–2019 are identified. Results from the study could guide active surveillance for new human-infective viruses in local high-risk areas. 

Funding: FFZ is funded by the Darwin Trust of Edinburgh ( MEJW has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 874735 (VEO) (

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere72123
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022


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