Humans must address environmental issues now if they wish to avoid future pandemics, WWF International stated in a report released last week. Top drivers of new zoonotic diseases include wildlife trade and consumption, deforestation and loss of natural ecosystems to agriculture.

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COVID-19’s devastating costs include the lives of 370,000 people in over 200 countries between December 2019 and May 2020 and an economic impact in the trillions. People are still trying to pinpoint COVID-19’s exact origins, but scientists believe it is a zoonotic disease, meaning one that wildlife transmits to humans. Scientists have linked the novel coronavirus to a disease prevalent in horseshoe bats.

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 “We must urgently recognize the links between the destruction of nature and human health, or we will soon see the next pandemic,” said Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International. “We must curb the high risk trade and consumption of wildlife, halt deforestation and land conversion as well as manage food production sustainably.” This goes for the whole world, from pangolins in Asia to brown bears in the EU’s Carpathian Mountains.

According to the report, COVID-19: Urgent Call to Protect People and Nature, new zoonotic diseases are emerging at a frightening rate. WWF calls on governments to halt the high-risk wildlife trade, introduce new policies to eliminate deforestation, protect food security in vulnerable communities, recognize Indigenous peoples’ land and water rights and commit enough dollars to implement the Convention on Biological Diversity’s post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. The organization also urges governments to halve their production and consumption footprints and to adopt a One Health approach that acknowledges the links between the health of humans, animals and the environment we share.

“Deforestation and ecosystem conversion are squeezing wildlife — and with it viruses — out of their natural habitats and closer to humans,” said Anke Schulmeister-Oldenhove, senior forest policy officer at WWF EU. “Forests can be our ‘antivirus,’ they protect us from pandemics and we need to protect them. New legislation should also protect human rights, especially those of Indigenous peoples and local communities.”


Image via Volodymyr Hryshchenko