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The Role Nuclear-Related Techniques Play in Fighting Zoonotic Diseases

ZODIAC will establish a global network to help national laboratories in monitoring, surveillance, early detection and control of animal and zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19 and Ebola. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

Nuclear-derived techniques, such as tests using real time reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), are important tools in the detection and characterization of viruses. The IAEA is providing emergency assistance to some 120 countries in the use of such tests to rapidly detect COVID-19.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has been a harsh reminder of the age-old

threat posed by zoonoses or zoonotic diseases, infectious diseases transmitted from animals to humans. Sixty percent of human pathogens come from animals, while 75% of new, emerging and re-emerging diseases are zoonotic. Globally, it is estimated that every year, around 2.6 billion people suffer from zoonotic illnesses and around 2.7 million succumb to these.

“The COVID-19 global pandemic hit the world unprepared and has shown us all the damaging impact zoonotic diseases can have,” said Najat Mokhtar, Deputy Director General at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “By continuing to strengthen scientific R&D on zoonotic pathogens, including with nuclear and nuclear-derived techniques, at the environment-animal-human interface, we can pre-empt these diseases and better protect human health and world economies in the future.”

In June 2020, the IAEA launched the ZODIAC, or ZOonotic Disease Integrated ACtion, initiative in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a way to further strengthen countries’ capabilities for early detection, diagnosis, prevention and control of zoonotic disease outbreaks. The initiative is designed as an integrated approach across sectors and disciplines, for addressing new and existing zoonotic pathogens. ZODIAC aims to help countries prepare for, pre-empt and prevent zoonotic disease outbreaks, as well as protect the wellbeing, livelihood and socio-economic status of billions of people worldwide and integrates emergency assistance measures, including a response team.

ZODIAC is part of the IAEA’s support in combatting COVID-19, through its applied research and development laboratories, its collaboration with and coordination of networks of laboratories worldwide and its technology and knowledge transfer through technical cooperation and coordinated research projects.

The IAEA, in cooperation with the FAO, coordinates the VETLAB Networks in Africa and Asia. The VETLAB network assists Member States to improve national laboratory capacities to early detect and control transboundary animal and zoonotic diseases threatening livestock and public health, including among others peste des petits ruminants, African swine fever, highly pathogenic avian influenza, Ebola, Rift Valley fever and lumpy skin disease. The networks comprise national laboratories that provide countries with support in detecting and controlling animal and zoonotic diseases and share experience and best practices. ZODIAC aims to create a global network on the basis of the regional ones.

“About 70 per cent of all diseases in humans come from animals,” said Gerrit Viljoen, Head of the Animal Production and Health Section of the Joint FAO/IAEA Programme for Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.

ZODIAC aims to help veterinary and public health officials identify these diseases before they spread. “We have seen an increase in the number of zoonotic epidemics in the last decades: first Ebola, then Zika, and now COVID-19. It’s important to monitor what is in the animal kingdom – both wildlife and livestock – and to act quickly on those findings before the pathogens jump to humans,” Mr Viljoen said.

Following the One Health concept for a multidisciplinary collaborative approach between human and animal health authorities and specialists, ZODIAC will benefit from the unique joint FAO/IAEA laboratories and from partners such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

“We have a unique capacity to provide laboratory support and guidance to countries,” said Mr Viljoen, adding that ZODIAC will, for example, provide technical know-how and advice to laboratories on test performance and assist authorities in the interpretation of results and in devising containment measures.

ZODIAC will also support R&D activities for novel technologies and methodologies for early detection and surveillance. Under the project, the IAEA will enhance its capacities to host scientists and fellows from Member States at its Seibersdorf laboratories outside Vienna and to carry out research on immunological, molecular, nuclear and isotopic tests, as well as in the use of irradiation to develop vaccines against diseases such as avian influenza. 

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