What exactly is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is an infectious respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 that was first detected in humans at the end of 2019. COVID-19 is the name of the disease – the acronym COVID is derived from ‘coronavirus disease’, with ‘19’ referring to the year it emerged – while SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus, as the second coronavirus genetically similar to the one that caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

There are hundreds of known coronaviruses in animals and humans, including those that cause mild illnesses such as the common cold. However, when a virus mutates and passes from animals to humans for the first time, the resulting zoonotic disease can be very harmful or even deadly, due to a lack of immunity in humans to the new virus. This was the case for the virus that caused SARS (SARS-CoV), which emerged in 2003, and for the virus that caused Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV), which emerged in 2012. The new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has so far shown to be less lethal but more contagious than these previous two viruses.

The first cases of COVID-19 in humans were identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. In a matter of months, millions around the world had been infected, and hundreds of thousands had died from the disease, with numbers continuing to grow.

What is the connection between COVID-19 and food systems?

COVID-19 is likely to have originated from the food system – the virus that causes the disease is suspected to have first transmitted to humans via an animal host. Emerging infectious diseases commonly originate from food systems, underscoring the interdependent linkages between human, animal, and environmental health, as understood via a One Health approach.

COVID-19 is also having severe impacts on food systems. Measures to stop the spread of the disease — such as social isolation directives, travel bans, and border closures — pose threats to food, nutrition, and water security, as well as progress on achieving global goals to end poverty and hunger. These impacts will be especially profound for low- and middle-income countries, potentially exacerbating hunger globally. The world’s most vulnerable, including women, youth, smallholder farmers, and the urban poor, will be the hardest hit. 

The pandemic highlights the urgent need to transform food systems in order to respond swiftly to those in greatest need, support global recovery, and prepare for long-term resilience to events such as human, animal, or crop disease outbreaks, and economic or climate shocks. Science-based transformation of the world’s food systems has the potential to end hunger and poverty, and meet global goals on sustainable development and climate change. 

How is CGIAR responding to COVID-19?

CGIAR, as the world’s largest public agricultural research network, already has a strong portfolio of work on issues related to the COVID-19 outbreak. Its far-reaching network has close to 50 years of experience in researching and improving food systems for the benefit of human, animal, and environmental health. The current crisis has only sharpened CGIAR’s strategic objectives to reduce poverty, improve food and nutrition security, and improve the quality of natural resources and ecosystem services, in line with global goals on sustainable development and mitigating and adapting to climate change.

CGIAR is making available its latest research and analysis on COVID-19 to support authorities and the public in making informed decisions. Its response is based around the four research pillars of: 1) Food systems; 2) One Health; 3) Inclusive public programs for food and nutrition security; and 4) Pro-poor policies and investments. These pillars intersect with existing research themes across CGIAR, and with the cross-cutting themes of gender, nutrition, and livelihoods.

A CGIAR COVID-19 Hub, bringing together agriculture and health research in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, has been established to ensure that a research-informed response effectively reaches the world’s most vulnerable. The Hub will support high-level coordination and provide a ‘one-stop shop’ for CGIAR funders and major partners seeking to engage with CGIAR on COVID-19 research and responses. Two-thirds of CGIAR’s research is already relevant to COVID-19 response – by drawing relevant research results from across the CGIAR System and making them available to key decision-makers and stakeholders in the agricultural sector, the Hub aims to maximize uptake of CGIAR innovations by countries most vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic. To provide swift support to global and country efforts during crisis response and recovery, the Hub will focus its attention on high-priority areas. These include surveillance and modeling of secondary impacts of COVID-19, such as the risk of increased poverty and hunger, and on monitoring and preventing future zoonotic disease outbreaks.

How will CGIAR’s work be impacted?

While CGIAR has much to contribute to solving the current crisis and preventing a future outbreak of its kind, it also faces several risks resulting from COVID-19. These include direct risks to the health and safety of its personnel, as well as strategic, operational, and financial risks.

The health of CGIAR personnel and partners, including the communities they work with, is a priority. Steps are being taken to ensure CGIAR’s continued productivity during this time, despite the disruptions to usual activities such as laboratory research, fieldwork, meetings with partners, participation in global fora, and more. These steps include exploring new ways of working with the aid of technology, maintaining regular communication among teams, and making use of flexible contractual arrangements to have the personnel in place to deliver on CGIAR’s strategic objectives and timelines.

Importantly, risks must be mitigated for CGIAR’s network of genebanks – the largest and most frequently accessed network of its kind in the world, holding more than 700,000 accessions that contribute to human diets. Inaccessibility to genebanks due to lockdowns and border closures may lead to a loss of accessions, and an inability to distribute germplasm to farmers, impacting the planting of staple crops. Contingency plans are being put in place to ensure that critical operations of genebanks can be sustained.

As the global economy suffers, CGIAR is also bracing for potential reductions in funding. It is vitally important to consider the long-term impact of financial risks posed to CGIAR by the current crisis. These risks are being assessed with an eye to maintaining the important work of CGIAR in delivering science-based solutions for resilient and sustainable food systems, including the mitigation of emerging infectious disease outbreaks, into the future.

How will CGIAR adapt to the changing circumstances?

Since the end of 2019, CGIAR has already begun preparing a transformation of its partnerships, knowledge, assets, and global presence, towards unifying its governance and operations under the banner of ‘One CGIAR’. The transformation is expected to accelerate the achievement of CGIAR’s strategic objectives, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, by 2030.

As One CGIAR, the System aims to integrate its management, policies, and services; find new and more impactful ways of doing research; share and invest more, and pooled, funding across the network; and move towards an approach of unified governance. While the COVID-19 pandemic may present some setbacks in achieving this transition, it also highlights the importance of accelerating its achievement, in order to work together as an organization to swiftly and strategically meet targets on eliminating poverty and hunger in the face of a global crisis.

For example, the transition to One CGIAR will create the conditions for more effective One Health research, enabling transdisciplinary coordination on animal, human, and environmental health. Experts in food safety and biosecurity, for example, will be able to more effectively coordinate with experts in environmental, social, and political sciences, giving a holistic perspective on solutions to the current pandemic and preventing similar crises in the future.

The transition will also support coordinated efforts to develop more resilient and sustainable global food systems. As One CGIAR, the System will continue to champion the role of evidence-based investment and interventions in the agricultural sector to reduce poverty, improve food and nutrition security, and improve the quality of natural resources and ecosystem services, beginning with supporting the most vulnerable.