03 Jun 2020

Lieu: Live | Webex Event & Facebook

Organisation: Geneva Environment Network

The emergence and re-emergence of zoonotic origin diseases are closely interlinked with the health of ecosystems. The risk of disease emergence and amplification increases with the intensification of human activities surrounding and encroaching into natural habitats, enabling pathogens in wildlife reservoirs to spill over to livestock and humans. Transformative action on protecting and restoring nature and the biodiversity of our planet is urgently needed, as we have much to gain from working with nature.

About the GENeva Environment Dialogues

The GENeva Environment Dialogues’ special COVID-19 series discusses the impacts of the pandemic on the global environmental agenda. Experts are concerned that the world is losing critical time to turn around alarming trends in biodiversity loss, climate change, sound management of chemicals and other environmental threats.

The series addresses the following topics:

  • The impact of the crisis on the invited organization activities
  • The response of the invited organization to the COVID-19 crisis
  • The impacts on the preparations of the conferences and negotiations they are hosting
  • New schedules and programmes for these conferences and negotiations


Facilitators: GEN Team

Richard KOCK

Co-Chair, IUCN SSC Wildlife Health Specialist Group

Manuel RUEDI

Head of the Vertebrate Dpt, Muséum d'histoire naturelle de Genève


Interagency Liaison on Biodiversity, Climate Change and Health, WHO



Moderation: Diana Rizzolio, Geneva Environment Network

The COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis that affects everyone, and that has an important economic impact on top of the human suffering caused by the disease itself. There is a large response from the UN system and from other actors to this crisis, including on the global environmental agenda, as we have heard in all the sessions we have convened.

The Secretary General of the United Nations refers to the COVID-19 pandemic as “an unprecedented wake-up call”. The pandemic is resulting in major economic and political shifts around the globe which are giving the international community a unique window of opportunity in which recovery plans can be instrumental in creating a more sustainable and resilient future. The pandemic has also shown how human health is intimately connected to the natural world. As we recover, we must build back better for people and for the planet.

The Secretary General keeps also reminding us that we have a framework for action – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

This week we are celebrating World Environment Day on Friday, and we are connecting with you every morning to discuss a topic related to biodiversity. Yesterday we presented the Act For Nature Forum, initially scheduled to take place physically in Oslo, and now going virtual, starting this Sunday.

Today we are discussing an important topic the emergence of infectious diseases and the links with healthy ecosystems, that will also be on the agenda of the Act For Nature Forum next week, on the agenda of the IUCN congress and UNEA-5 next year.

While facing the current pandemic, and although its origin is still to be identified, the emergence and re-emergence of zoonotic origin diseases, closely interlinked with the health of ecosystems, has been addressed in many foras. UNEP mentions in a report issued 3 years ago, that the risk of disease emergence and amplification increases with the intensification of human activities surrounding and encroaching into natural habitats, enabling pathogens in wildlife reservoirs to spill over to livestock and humans. Transformative action on protecting and restoring nature and the biodiversity of our planet is urgently needed, as we have much to gain from working with nature. UNEP will be launching next month a new report on preventing future zoonotic disease outbreaks.

To discuss emerging infectious diseases and the links with biodiversity, we have invited three international renowned experts in each of their fields.

  • Based in the United Kingdom, Richard Kock is a dedicated wildlife veterinarian, researcher and conservationist, with 40 years of experience in this field. Richard is a Professor at the Royal Veterinary College of the University of London. Richard has an impressive biography. We will only highlight here that Richard has contributed and continues contributing to the assessments lead by various international institutions, including UN bodies, on the topic that we are addressing today. Richard is the co-chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Wildlife Health Specialist Group, leading a membership of some 400+ wildlife health and conservation experts.
  • Manuel Ruedi, our “local” Geneva expert. Manuel is a currator at the Natural History Museum of Geneva and his specialty is mammalogy and ornithology. Manuel has developed various research programmes on Bats and he has even discovered new species of Bats. For those of you who are based in Geneva, you know that the Natural History Musuem is an important resource of information on nature-related topics and there are regularly activities proposed to better discover the world of bats. During the pandemia, Manuel has produces various videos for general public on the links between COVID and wild animals.
  • Cristina Romanelli, the UN inter-agency expert on biodiversity and health issues. Cristina works for the World Health Organization, and has previously worked for the secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. With Cristina we will reconnect to the global environmental agenda and the key milestones ahead of us.

Emerging infectious diseases and healthy ecosystem

Richard Kock

  • COVID-19 is a crisis, but an opportunity as well
  • The world ground to a halt
  • What is a zoonosis?
    • Any disease or infection that is transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans
    • It has always been part of humanity – we have always been connected with nature
    • Animals play an essential role in maintain zoonotic diseases in nature
  • Known facts about COVID-19:
    • COVID-19 is a novel virus
    • It transmits from human to human
    • We do not know the animal reservoir
      • For SARS in 2003, we have not found a reservoir either
      • It is possible that bats are the reservoir, but we are not sure
    • COVID-19 is capable of being transmitted from animal to animal or from animal to human
    • We suspect it has arisen from a spill over of SARS CoV-2 from an animal in the food system in China – the virus reached us not directly from nature, but through a human system
    • The virus might have changed in the passage from animal to human, so we might never find the virus in an animal, but similar viruses are found in horseshoe bats
    • The virus might have jumped from bats to another wild animal species (that are farmed in China) before reaching humans
  • Viruses move around: their whole evolutionary process consists in finding a host and adapt
  • If we look at the genome of COVID-19, we are fairly sure that it is associated with bats – we isolated more than 500 different types of beta-coronaviruses – not abundant in nature
  • Not clear how the virus originated
  • The Chinese wildlife farming industry is massive in terms of employment and output
  • First infodemic – impacts are way beyond the sole impacts of the virus itself
    • It caused a global recession, which has serious social and political consequences
  • What has driven this event?
    • Landscape change – changing dynamic between people and nature
    • Human and domestic animal pressure on ecosystems
    • Spill over opportunity from exploitation of wildlife
  • We need to respect nature
  • There are billions of viruses, but only 1500 pathogens of humans
  • Ecosystemic stability and natural ecosystems do not generate pathogens – they keep equilibrium and viruses in ecosystemic stability have low pathogenicity

Manuel Ruedi

  • Natural history museum is a large institution in Geneva
  • 12 million specimens – repository of biodiversity and geodiversity
  • 14 scientists – on the field to understand biodiversity and its evolution
  • A new species of bat living in Geneva was discovered last year
  • Around 300.000 visitors per year
  • The Museum organizes multiple public outreach initiatives
  • In August 2020, there will be the 25th edition of “bat night”
  • How can the loss of biodiversity affect the emergence of a pandemic in the world?
    • Example:
    • A tropical rainforest is very biodiverse, but you will not find many animals
    • What is fundamental is that every animal is present in low density
    • If deforestation kicks in – the few surviving winning species will have a higher density, since the mechanisms that kept the ecosystem stable are compromised
    • Loss of biodiversity increases the density of winning species’ populations – if the winning specie can transmit infectious diseases to humans, the probability of an epidemic/pandemic increases

Cristina Romanelli

  • Year of historic firsts
    • The international community is at a standstill
    • The WHA held online and held during a pandemic
  • It is a time of unprecedented opportunity to build back better
  • Learn what is inherently flawed about our relationship with nature
  • Epidemiologists have been warning of a pandemic outbreak risk for decades
  • Drivers of pandemics are not new – not even for coronaviruses (ex. of MERS, SARS)
  • Meeting of the Inter-Agency Liaison Group on Biodiversity and Health, with UNEP, CBD, UNFCCC and other partners
    • How to strike the narrative on the link between biodiversity and pandemics?
    • How can we build back better going forward?
  • Some of the elements of the narrative were already touched upon previously, and we created a Q&A to bring in more elements and building blocks for evidence-based policy making
  • We know that:
    • Zoonotic disease emerged largely as a result of human activity
    • Biodiversity destruction (through deforestation, uncontrolled urbanization, agricultural intensification, landscape and seascape homogenization) increased the probability for domesticated animals to enter in contact with wildlife and generate a spill over
  • Single issue focus: live animal markets
  • But losing sight of the bigger picture of destruction of nature and biodiversity loss
  • Need to better evaluate the unintended consequences of measures to reduce pandemic risks (employment, incentives, …)
  • How do we operationalize all this?
    • One Health approach
    • Better prevent, protect and respond to pandemic threats
    • Cross-sectorial involvement
    • Evidence-based policy
  • Only through integrated approaches can we consider and evaluate all the dimensions that are affected by the pandemic and the risk of it
  • Two elements of discussion:
    • stimulus packages
    • operationalization of One Health


Yves Lador, Earthjustice Representative in Geneva

What are the conditions of ecosystem stability that you describe as essential? Would you say that self-organization or regeneration capacity is crucial? Would you say that it just needs to be engineered, as the most discourse on biodiversity claim? Finally, what could be the indicators to focus on to identify the capacity of ecosystems to self-organize, remain resilient and even restore itself?


What are the key milestones ahead of us, where the international agenda on this topic will move forward?


Richard Kock

  • Large populations of domesticated animals and people are the problem
  • More viruses come from there than from the whole of biodiversity
  • Nature with ecosystemic stability is not a threat
  • We can’t package biodiversity in a natural park and somehow restore the integrity of the whole system
  • Need to reintegrate humans into the system
  • Possible that a pathogen emerges with a 60/80% mortality, but we do not know
  • Temperature changes stress the bats – might make the virus more active
  • We do not know how the geosystemic changes affect animals and their pathogens
  • Need to re-examine our role and restore the balance

Manuel Ruedi

  • In North-Eastern India
  • People wold hunt bats for survival – killing massive numbers of bats
  • Educational programme showing how bats can help controlling insects
  • Ended up setting up a national park protecting the bats

Cristina Romanelli

  • Knowledge of previous infectious diseases outbreaks
  • We cannot say with any degree of certainty that there is a link between climate change and COVID-19

Richard Kock

  • We tend to jump to conclusions, but util we have proof we cannot be sure
  • We have an example with the Nipah virus, in South East Asia
  • A bat virus, spilt though the fruit plantations to pigs and then to humans
  • When we understand the epidemiology, we can make alterations
  • What are the indicators we need to look at?
    • We need to look at the interface between the agricultural systems, the human landscapes and natural landscapes
    • We need to look at our whole food system
    • We are utilizing far too many domesticated and wild animals for food
  • Biodiversity is declining, deforestation is continuing at the same rate
  • We must stop being in denial – we need to admit we are failing and society needs to support us

Cristina Romanelli

  • Example of Nipah virus is great to show why we should have an integrated One Health approach

Cristina Romanelli

  • Far too many
  • One in particular is COP15 CBD
  • Unique opportunity when international community will adopt a 10-year framework to safeguard biodiversity and the well-being of people
  • Also considering a global plan of action on biodiversity and health – WHO+CBD and other members
  • Timely opportunities to build back better

Richard Kock

  • Must continue to collaborate and talk
  • Do more than just be observers
  • We have to have a mechanism to bring this forward
  • Some players are not at the table
  • UNEP needs to take more responsibility on environment and health
  • Good to see more debate and involvement in the last months

Closing remarks

Diana Rizzolio

More than ever, it’s time for nature. We have heard this morning about the need for a holistic view and an integrated approach.

Important milestones ahead of us where the topic of emerging infectious diseases and healthy ecosystems will be addressed:

  • Act for Nature Forum preparatory to UNEA-5 (June 2020)
  • IUCN Congress (January 2021)
  • UNEA-5
  • CBD COP15 and the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework
  • UNFCCC COP26 and the Nature-based solutions agenda
  • Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030)



The event was live on Facebook.