Industrial-scale food animal production – and not meat eating per se -- increases the risk of pathogen spillover, say experts at webinar on zoonotic diseases like COVID-19

First Down To Earth Media Webinar titled ‘From animals to humans -- understanding zoonotic diseases’ allows journalists to hear subject experts from the US and India and discuss the issue with them 

See the recording of the webinar click here

Access the Down To Earth story on zoonotic diseases Click here

New Delhi, May 11, 2020: In the first 20 years of the 21st century, the world has been ravaged by a string of strange diseases that have moved from their animal hosts to humans, killing thousands. Avian influenza, Ebola, Zika, Nipah, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are all household words now. A webinar for journalists, organised and conducted recently by Down To Earth magazine and Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), unravelled some of the mysteries associated with these diseases. 

Inaugurating the one-and-half hour long webinar which was attended by over 180 participants, CSE director general Sunita Narain said: “The contagion (of corona) grew because we live in such an interconnected world. But it is clear that we are as strong as our weakest link. If the virus continues to spread – probably in regions with the least developed healthcare systems or those ravaged by war and strife – it will stay with us. We will not win this, unless we win it together.” 

“Viruses are everywhere in the environment and we are always exposed to them. But only a few are able to mutate and infect us. In most cases, either the virus has not evolved enough to infect, or our immune system recognises it and protects us against it,” said Abi T Vanak, speaking at the webinar. Dr Vanak is a Fellow at the Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE). 

The Down To Earth report points out that between 2002 and 2003, SARS -- caused by the SARS CoV virus -- infected 8,422 people and killed 914; the MERS outbreak that came a decade later, infected 1,791 and killed 640 between 2012 and 2016. The SARS-COV-2 virus which we are currently fighting is more contagious in comparison, with over three million cases in five months. But it is less deadly with a mortality rate of 2-5 per cent compared to SARS (9.5 per cent) and MERS (34 per cent). 

Says Down To Earth reporter Ishan Kukreti, the lead writer of the magazine’s story on zoonosis: “A lot depends on the mode of transmission. The ability of the virus to transmit from human to human is what makes COVID-19 so contagious as opposed to SARS or MARS viruses which could not. Studies have found that the pandemic potential of a virus drastically increases if it mutates to acquire the ability to become airborne – that is, transit through respiratory droplets and aerosol particles.” 

Dr Pranav Pandit, from the University of California in Davis, USA, who also spoke at the webinar, said that “researchers working on coronaviruses were expecting for some time that a new virus leading to a pandemic would hit the world. But because predicting pandemics exactly is very difficult, no one could forecast COVID in terms of its exact location and time.” 

Talking about exposure, Dr Vanak pointed out that it was not the consumption of meat per se that was a problem, but the method of meat production – “this is what makes us vulnerable to zoonotic diseases,” he said. 

“Industrial scale animal production is the cause of pathogen spillover, not the small, backyard-kind animal husbandry operations. On the contrary, these backyard operations lead to the creation of new varieties of animals, many of which are immune to zoonotic pathogens. But in the case of industrial scale animal cultivation, there is only one breed which is at a high risk of getting infected and passing it on to us,” explained Dr Vanak.

To know more, please check out Down To Earth’s COVID coverage and resources at 

For any other assistance, contact Souparno Banerjee of The CSE Media Resource Centre,, 99108 64339.