Data from the National Sleep Foundation finds that the optimal bedroom temperature for sleep is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit. But we may be getting fewer hours of "good sleepin’ weather" as the climate warms, according to a recent paper from researchers at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
Published in One Earth, the study finds that heat related to climate change could provide a “pathway” to sleep deprivation. The authors say the effect is “substantially larger” for those in lower-income countries. Hours of sleep decline when nighttime temperature exceeds 50 degrees, and temps higher than 77 reduce the chances of sleeping for seven hours by 3.5 percent. Even small losses associated with rising temperatures contribute significantly to people not getting enough sleep.
We’re affected by high temperatures at night because body temperature becomes more sensitive to the environment when slumbering. “Mechanisms that control for thermal regulation become more disordered during sleep,” explains Clete Kushida, a neurologist, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and sleep medicine clinician.
The study finds that women and older adults are especially vulnerable. Worldwide, the elderly lost over twice as much sleep per degree of warming compared to younger people. This phenomenon was apparent between the ages of 60 and 70, and it increased beyond age 70. “The mechanism for balancing temperatures appears to be more affected with age,” Kushida adds.
Others disproportionately affected include those who live in regions with more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which accelerate climate change, and people in hotter locales will lose more sleep per degree of warming, according to the study, with suboptimal temperatures potentially eroding 50 to 58 hours of sleep per person per year. One might think that those in warmer countries can adapt to the heat, but the researchers found no evidence for such adjustments. “We actually found those living in the warmest climate regions were impacted over twice as much as those in the coldest climate regions,” says the study's lead author, Kelton Minor, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Social Data Science.
Short sleep can reduce cognitive performance and productivity, increase absenteeism from work or school, and lead to a host of other physical and psychosocial problems. These issues include a compromised immune system, hypertension, depression, anger and suicide, say the study’s authors. According to a fact sheet by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a third of U.S. adults already report sleeping fewer hours than the recommended amount, even though sufficient sleep “is not a luxury—it is something people need for good health.”
Equitable policy and planning are needed to ensure equal access to cooling technologies in a warming world.
Beyond global health, a sleep-deprived world will impact the economy as the climate warms. “Less productivity at work, associated with sleep loss or deprivation, would result in more sick days on a global scale, not just in individual countries,” Kushida says.
Unlike previous research that measured sleep patterns with self-reported surveys and controlled lab experiments, the study in One Earth offers a global analysis that relies on sleep-tracking wristbands that link more than seven million sleep records of 47,628 adults across 68 countries to local and daily meteorological data, offering new insight into the environmental impact on human sleep. Controlling for individual, seasonal and time-varying confounds, researchers found the main way that higher temperatures shorten slumber is by delaying sleep onset.
Heat effects on sleep were seen in industrialized countries including those with access to air conditioning, notes the study. Air conditioning may buffer high indoor temperatures, but they also increase GHG emissions and ambient heat displacement, thereby exacerbating the unequal burdens of global and local warming. Continued urbanization is expected to contribute to these problems.
Previous sleep studies have found an inverse U-shaped response to temperature in highly controlled settings, with subjects sleeping worse when room temperatures were either too cold or too warm. However, “people appear far better at adapting to colder outside temperatures than hotter conditions,” says Minor.
Although there are ways of countering the heat effect, some populations have more access to them. “Air conditioning can help with the effect of higher temperature, but not all individuals can afford air conditioners,” says Kushida. He points out that this could drive even greater inequity between higher- and lower-income countries.
Equitable policy and planning are needed to ensure equal access to cooling technologies in a warming world. “Clean and renewable energy systems and interventions will be needed to mitigate and adapt to ongoing climate warming,” Minor says. Future research should investigate “policy, planning and design innovation,” which could reduce the impact of sweltering temperatures on a good night’s sleep for the good of individuals, society and our planet, asserts the study.
Unabated and on its current trajectory, by 2099 suboptimal temperatures could shave 50 to 58 hours of sleep per person per year, predict the study authors. “Down the road, as technology develops, there might be ways of enabling people to adapt on a large scale to these higher temperatures,” says Kushida. “Right now, it’s not there.”
Responding to COVID-19 outbreaks at more than 200 mink farms, the Danish government, in November 2020, culled its entire mink population. The Danish armed forces helped farmers slaughter each of their 17 million minks, which are normally farmed for their valuable fur.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, said officials, spread from human handlers to the small, ferret-like animals, mutated, and then spread back to several hundred humans. Although the mass extermination faced much criticism, Denmark’s prime minister defended the decision last month, stating that the step was “necessary” and that the Danish government had “a responsibility for the health of the entire world.”
Over the past two and half years, COVID-19 infections have been reported in numerous animal species around the world. In addition to the Danish minks, there is other evidence that the virus can mutate as it’s transmitted back and forth between humans and animals, which increases the risk to public health. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), COVID-19 vaccines for animals may protect the infected species and prevent the transmission of viral mutations. However, the development of such vaccines has been slow. Scientists attribute the deficiency to a lack of data.
“Several animal species have been predicted and found to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2,” says Suresh V. Kuchipudi, interim director of the Animal Diagnostic Laboratory at the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences. But the risk remains unknown for many animals in several parts of the world, he says. “Therefore, there is an urgent need to monitor the SARS-CoV-2 exposure of high-risk animals in different parts of the world.”
In June, India introduced Ancovax, its first COVID-19 vaccine for animals. The development came a year after the nation reported that the virus had infected eight Asiatic lions, with two of them dying. While 30 COVID-19 vaccines for humans have been approved for general or emergency use across the world, Ancovax is only the third such vaccine for animals. The first, named Carnivac-Cov, was registered by Russia in March last year, followed by another vaccine four months later, developed by Zoetis, a U.S. pharmaceutical company.
Christina Lood, a Zoetis spokesperson, says the company has donated over 26,000 doses of its animal vaccine to over 200 zoos – in addition to 20 conservatories, sanctuaries and other animal organizations located in over a dozen countries, including Canada, Chile and the U.S. The vaccine, she adds, has been administered to more than 300 mammalian species so far.
“At least 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases have an animal origin, including COVID-19,” says Lood. “Now more than ever before, we can all see the important connection between animal health and human health."
The Dangers of COVID-19 Infections among Animals
Cases of the virus in animals have been reported in several countries across the world. As of March this year, 29 kinds of animals have been infected. These include pet animals like dogs, cats, ferrets and hamsters; farmed animals like minks; wild animals like the white-tailed deer, mule deer and black-tailed marmoset; and animals in zoos and sanctuaries, including hyenas, hippopotamuses and manatees. Despite the widespread infection, the U.S. Centres for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that “we don’t yet know all of the animals that can get infected,” adding that more studies and surveillance are needed to understand how the virus is spread between humans and animals.
Leyi Wang, a veterinary virologist at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, University of Illinois, says that captive and pet animals most often get infected by humans. It goes both ways, he says, citing a recent study in Hong Kong that found the virus spread from pet hamsters to people.
Wang’s bigger concern is the possibility that humans or domestic animals could transmit the virus back to wildlife, creating an uncontrollable reservoir of the disease, especially given the difficulty of vaccinating non-captive wild animals. Such spillbacks have happened previously with diseases such as plague, yellow-fever, and rabies.
It’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets.
In the past, other human respiratory viruses have proven fatal for endangered great apes like chimpanzees and gorillas. Fearing that COVID-19 could have the same effect, primatologists have been working to protect primates throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, virus reservoirs have already been created among other animals, Wang says. “Deer of over 20 U.S. states were tested SARS-CoV-2 positive,” says Wang, pointing to a study that confirmed human-to-deer transmission as well as deer-to-deer transmission. It remains unclear how many wildlife species may be susceptible to the disease due to interaction with infected deer, says Wang.
In April, the CDC expressed concerns over new coronavirus variants mutating in wildlife, urging health authorities to monitor the spread of the contagion in animals as threats to humans. The WHO has made similar recommendations.
Challenges to Vaccine Development
Zoetis initiated development activities for its COVID-19 vaccine in February 2020 when the first known infection of a dog occurred in Hong Kong. The pharmaceutical giant completed the initial development work and studies on dogs and cats, and shared their findings at the World One Health Congress in the fall of 2020. A few months later, after a troop of eight gorillas contracted the virus at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Zoetis donated its experimental vaccine for emergency use in the great ape population.
Zoetis has uniquely formulated its COVID-19 vaccine for animals. It uses the same antigen as human vaccines, but it includes a different type of carrier protein for inducing a strong immune response. “The unique combination of antigen and carrier ensures safety and efficacy for the species in which a vaccine is used,” says Lood.
But it’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets. “As it became apparent that risk of severe disease for household pets such as cats and dogs was low, demand for those vaccines decreased before they became commercially available,” says William Karesh, executive vice-president for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance. He adds that in affected commercial mink farms, the utility of a vaccine could justify the cost in some cases.
Although scientists have made tremendous advances in making vaccines for animals, Kuchipudi thinks that the need for COVID-19 vaccines for animals “must be evaluated based on many factors, including the susceptibility of the particular animal species, health implications, and cost.”.
Not every scientist feels the need for animal vaccines. Joel Baines, a professor of virology at Cornell University’s Baker Institute for Animal Health, says that while domestic cats are the most susceptible to COVID-19, they usually suffer mild infections. Big cats in zoos are vulnerable, but they can be isolated or distanced from humans. He says that mink farms are a relatively small industry and, by ensuring that human handlers are COVID negative, such outbreaks can be curtailed.
Baines also suggests that human vaccines could probably work in animals, as they were tested in animals during early clinical trials and induced immune responses. “However, these vaccines should be used in humans as a priority and it would be unethical to use a vaccine meant for humans to vaccinate an animal if vaccine doses are at all limiting,” he says.
William Karesh, president of the World Animal Health Organization Working Group on Wildlife Diseases, says the best way to protect animals is to reduce their exposure to infected people.
In the absence of enough vaccines, Karesh says that the best way to protect animals is the same as protecting unvaccinated humans - reduce their exposure to infected people by isolating them when necessary. “People working with or spending time with wild animals should follow available guidelines, which includes testing themselves and wearing PPE to avoid accidentally infecting wildlife,” he says.
The Link between Animal and Human Health
Although there is a need for animal vaccines in response to virus outbreaks, the best approach is to try to prevent the outbreaks in the first place, explains K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India. He says that the incidence of zoonotic diseases has increased in the past six decades because human actions like increased deforestation, wildlife trade and animal meat consumption have opened an ecological window for disease transmission between humans and animals. Such actions chip away at the natural barriers between humans and forest-dwelling viruses, while building conveyor belts for the transmission of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.
Many studies suggest that the source of COVID-19 was infected live animals sold at a wet market in China’s Wuhan. The market sold live dogs, rats, porcupines, badgers, hares, foxes, hedgehogs, marmots and Chinese muntjac (small deer) and, according to a study published in July, the virus was found on the market’s stalls, animal cages, carts and water drains.
This research strongly suggests that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, one that jumps from animals to humans due to our close relationship with them in agriculture, as companions and in the natural environment. Half of the infectious diseases that affect people come from animals, but the study of zoonotic diseases has been historically underfunded, even as they can reduce the likelihood and cost of future pandemics.
“We need to invest in vaccines,” says Reddy, “but that cannot be a substitute for an ecologically sensible approach to curtailing zoonotic diseases.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in health research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.