September 1, 2020

31 August 2020 – There has been a great global demand to quickly build national capacities to detect and monitor COVID-19 infections in the combat against the pandemic. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has provided its expertise and international network of partners to provide over 120 countries with emergency assistance in the form of equipment, supplies and technical support to rapidly detect the virus using a nuclear-derived technique. This diagnostic technique, known as ‘real time reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction’ (real time RT-PCR), is one of the most sensitive and accurate techniques available for detecting the virus in both humans and animals, delivering accurate results within hours.

“The IAEA takes pride in its ability to respond quickly to crises, as we did in the recent past with the Ebola, Zika and African Swine Fever viruses,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi. “Our staff are working hard to ensure that this critical equipment is delivered as quickly as possible where it is urgently needed now, and that the world is better prepared for future pandemics”.

COVID-19 equipment donated by the IAEA arrived at the Central Laboratories at Jordan’s Ministry of Health in May 2020. The IAEA is dispatching equipment to countries around the world to enable them to use a nuclear-derived technique to rapidly detect the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This emergency assistance is part of the IAEA’s response to requests for support from Member States. (Photo: Central Laboratories, Ministry of Health, Jordan)

Dr Maribel Huaringa of the National Institute of Health in Peru receives real time RT-PCR equipment from the IAEA to use against COVID-19. (Photo: National Reference Laboratory for Respiratory Viruses, National Institute of Health and the Ministry of Health, Peru).

Through its technical cooperation programme, the IAEA has been providing concrete support to laboratories designated by Member States. These laboratories have received packages which include the diagnostic machines and kits, along with reagents (chemicals necessary for tests), biosafety supplies, personal protection equipment and laboratory cabinets for the safe analysis of collected samples.

Laboratory staff are also receiving training with the support of the IAEA’s Programmes on Human Health and Food and Agriculture through online webinars and videos on subjects such as the detection, characterization and monitoring of viruses transmitted between animals and humans; biosafety and biosecurity procedures to protect health and veterinary workers during sampling and analysis; the contribution of nuclear and nuclear-derived techniques for the identification of COVID-19; and on helping to prevent further external contaminations. Online information materials on COVID-19 are available on a dedicated page at the Human Health Campus. In addition, the IAEA, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is providing guidance on COVID-19 detection to medical and veterinary laboratories, including standard operating procedures to identify the virus following WHO recommendations.

Peru was the first country to receive testing equipment from the IAEA. The country has been hard hit by the pandemic. “The IAEA’s timely assistance has been critical,” said Susana Petrick, head of the Peruvian Nuclear Energy Institute (IPEN). “Our national laboratories were very concerned when COVID-19 cases started to appear, as they understood that the country would need to quickly increase its capacity to perform early identification of the virus using RT-PCR.” Equipment was provided to Peru’s National Institute of Health, which it then distributed to national laboratories.

The IAEA’s technical cooperation programme helps countries to use nuclear science and technology to address key development priorities, including health, agriculture, water, the environment and industry. The programme also helps countries to identify and meet future energy needs. It supports greater radiation safety and nuclear security, and provides legislative assistance.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, IAEA assistance is helping laboratories in Sarajevo and Banja Luka to keep check on the number of cases in the country. “The new supplies will greatly improve diagnostic services to our patients and better protect staff on the frontline of sample collection and processing. I consider this donation very important to our country in these difficult times,” said Maja Travar, head of the Department of Clinical Microbiology at the University Clinical Centre of the Republika Srpska in Banja Luka.

Looking forward

The IAEA has launched a new global initiative to strengthen global preparedness for future disease threats and outbreaks like COVID-19. The initiative, named ZODIAC (Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action), will focus on the identification, monitoring, tracing and early detection of disease pathogens which can be transferred between animals and humans – zoonotic diseases – using nuclear or nuclear-derived techniques.

Through ZODIAC, countries will be able to access equipment, technology packages, expertise, guidance and training. National laboratories will be connected to a regional network, and regional networks linked through a global platform. Decision-makers will receive up-to-date, user-friendly information that will enable them to act quickly. ZODIAC will also support nuclear science, and R&D activities for novel technologies and methodologies for early detection and surveillance.

More information on the IAEA’s unique contribution to the peaceful application of nuclear science and technology for South-South and Triangular Cooperation can be found in the UNOSSC-IAEA publication South-South in Action Sustainable Development through the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Science and Technology, published in March 2019. For more information, visit IAEA website.