A European NGO has warned that people living in cities or regions with high levels of air pollution are at greater risk from the coronavirus.
The European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) says that air pollution causes diabetes, hypertension and respiratory diseases, underlying health conditions that make coronavirus more deadly.
The EPHA cites a 2003 report that found that victims of SARS were 84% more likely to die if they lived in an area of moderate air pollution, compared to those who lived an area where it was low.
SARS killed 774 people between 2002 and 2003 with over 8,000 reported cases, the majority of them in China. Like COVID-19, it was a coronavirus, but was transmitted from cats to humans.
"Patients with chronic lung and heart conditions caused or worsened by long-term exposure to air pollution are less able to fight off lung infections and more likely to die," said Sara De Matteis, associate professor in Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Cagliari University, Italy.
"This is likely also the case for Covid-19," said De Matteis, who is also a member of the European Respiratory Society.
The World Health Organisation estimates that nine out of ten people worldwide breath polluted air, which kills some seven million people per year. One third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution, it said.
North Italy is a hotspot of air pollution in Europe, the NGO argues, as well as being at the centre of the continent's coronavirus outbreak. Since the outbreak, there has been a sharp drop in pollution levels in the region, according to satellite images taken on the 17 and 26 February.
EPHA Acting Secretary General Sascha Marschang argued that while the air may be clearing in Europe, the "damage had already been done to human health and the ability to fight off infection."
Governments should have tackled chronic air pollution long ago, but have prioritised the economy over health by going soft on the auto industry. Once this crisis is over, policymakers should speed up measures to get dirty vehicles off our roads," he said.
"Science tells us that epidemics like Covid-19 will occur with increasing frequency. So cleaning up the streets is a basic investment for a healthier future.”