Forests and Pandemics

A new report by WWF Italy explores the correlation between the spread of the new Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and humanity’s impact on natural ecosystems

20 March 2020 

A new Report by WWF Italy – Ecosystem destruction and the rise of pandemics – analyses the central role that the destruction of ecosystems plays in the outbreak of viruses such as Ebola, AIDS, SARS and the new Coronavirus that is currently having a profound effect on our lives. The Coronavirus has now spread to more than 100 countries around the world and has been classified by the World Health Organization as a pandemic. In a search for the cause of the outbreak, experts have focused on the so-called spillover phenomenon, the mechanism by which a virus usually only hosted by animals passes to people.

As outlined in the report, the epicentre of the new Coronavirus seems to have been the open market of Wuhan, in the province of Hubei in China, where it is most likely that the virus initially passed from animals to humans. Some studies suggest that the animal in question could have been a pangolin, others indicate bats. To date the causes behind the spread of virus are not clear; it is likely, however, that behind the widespread diffusion of this new pathology lies the often illegal or uncontrolled trade in live wild animals and their body parts.

The handling and trade of wild animals is only the tip of the iceberg when considering the rapid spread of the virus, which is related to the far deeper relationship between humans and natural ecosystems. Indeed, scientists around the world are aware that among the causes of the spread of emerging infectious diseases are vital factors such as habitat loss, the creation of artificial environments, and more generally the destruction of biodiversity.

Our impact on ecosystems – deforestation, over-exploitation of natural resources, alteration of the soil –  and on the complex dynamic balance of the biosphere have a direct impact on our well-being and on our health. This occurs in two ways: on the one hand the destruction of habitats and biodiversity creates favourable conditions for the spread of emerging zoonotic diseases; on the other the creation of artificial, nature-poor habitats with a high human density can further facilitate this spread. Under these conditions the balance within ecosystems, populations and individuals capable of contrasting the microorganisms responsible for certain diseases is lost.

The destruction of forests, in particular, can expose humans to new forms of contact with microbes and with the wild species that host them. We need, then, to take special care of protecting, managing and restoring high ecological value forests, which is the core mission of the Medforval Network. We will continue our important work and raise awareness of the crucial changes that the world will need to make in the future. As summarized in WWF’s report: we must reduce by at least half our footprint on nature; we have to halt the loss of natural habitats; we must stop the extinction of living species. Our work on forests will play a key role in favouring the natural balance of ecosystems and in reconstructing the ecosystems that humanity has destroyed or degraded.

Francesco Marcone and Fabrizio Canonico, WWF Oasi, Focal Points for the Cratere degli Astroni Medfoval site

Isabella Vannucchi, Istituto Oikos, Medfroval Secretariat