ILRI expertise on zoonotic diseases

In late December, a novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) emerged in central China, sparking a pandemic known as COVID-19 that has spread worldwide.  

COVID-19 is likely to have severe health and economic consequences in the developing world, with repercussions that are difficult to anticipate, and to put considerable stress on global food systems.

It was estimated in 2016 (and has since been proven) that the cost of future pandemics could be in the same order as those of climate change. Yet funding for managing pandemic diseases receives only a fraction of that put toward managing a warming globe. 

The provision of proactive, risk-based animal health services is a crucial investment in the battle against human disease plagues.

ILRI is one of fifteen scientific research centres known as CGIAR that are working for a food-secure future in developing countries. 

Key messages

  • The virus, which is believed to have emerged in a wet market in Central China, is not the first to pass from animals to humans. Diseases that are transmitted between animals and humans are called zoonoses. Past zoonoses have included bird flu, SARS, MERS-CoV and Ebola.
  • People can acquire zoonoses from direct or indirect contact with animals and from livestock products. In some cases, when a disease jumps species from animals to humans it becomes adapted to humans as it spreads as a human-only disease. For example, HIV was originally a zoonotic disease which mutated to become a human-to-human disease. In other cases, such as rabies, animals remain the source of infection.
  • Zoonoses are more common than most people realize: On average, a new zoonosis emerges every four months, although few in recent memory have been as globally threatening as COVID-19.
  • The emergence of COVID-19 underlines the importance of taking a One Health approach, based on the premise that animal and human health and the ecosystems they share are inextricably linked and must be addressed together.
  • Animal health systems remain poorly resourced to contribute effectively to One Health interventions. We need to engage in better surveillance and monitoring of animal diseases and conduct better vaccination and food safety programs.
  • For a One Health approach to work we need to understand that society and people are at the centre: Our choices about human, animal and ecosystems health drive the present system. 
  • COVID-19 is likely to have severe health and economic consequences worldwide, but especially in the developing world, with repercussions that are difficult to anticipate. It will likely place extraordinary stress on food and nutrition security, agriculture, gender equity and global food systems. 
  • Traditional markets that sell fresh meat, fish and other goods that can spoil, as well as practice of consuming of wild animal or bushmeat, have come under increased scrutiny; a global policy overreaction such as an outright ban on wet markets could jeopardize livelihoods and food security and, perversely, lead to greater long-term health risks. 

Short video listing key areas in zoonotic disease research