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ZODIAC, the global initiative to fight future pandemics

Fiorda Llukmani

For the past year and a half, our world has been absorbed by the emergence and rapid spread of COVID-19. Every country has been affected, and over four million people have died. How can we control future outbreaks from emerging and causing chaos in the world?

More than 70 per cent of infectious diseases affecting humans originate from animals. Having possibly jumped from animals to humans, COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, and the IAEA has offered 128 countries and territories support to detect the presence of its virus. The fastest and most accurate detection method for the virus, real-time reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (RT–PCR), is a nuclear-derived technique, and the IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has helped countries to use it.

Building on decades of experience in supporting the detection, identification and management of zoonoses, such as avian influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and Ebola, in June 2020 the IAEA launched the Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action project, or ZODIAC, to help countries prepare for future pandemics. ZODIAC is a global initiative that supports laboratories in identifying zoonotic pathogens before they infect people. The project aims to help build and increase the capacity of veterinary and public health officials to respond to outbreaks in time.

“With COVID-19, the world was caught vastly unprepared,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi. “Through ZODIAC, we aim to establish a network of labs around the world that can support national authorities with reliable data, thus allowing them to act faster and more decisively.” ZODIAC will help equip laboratories and train experts in countries where zoonotic diseases may emerge. By supporting countries’ efforts to detect potential virus pathogens, with training in the latest nuclear and related techniques, laboratories can identify potential animal viruses, with a view to act before they cause human diseases.

“Today the world faces the consequences of two major crises — the pandemic and climate change — whose effects wreak havoc on the economy and the health of populations,” said Juan Francisco Facetti, Paraguay’s Ambassador to Austria and Resident Representative to the IAEA. “The ZODIAC project not only foresees continuing with the strategy of enhancing the analytical capacities of our health systems to face COVID-19, but will also allow us to take a giant leap forward in strengthening the understanding of zoonotic diseases and their sequelae.”

Applying decades of experience

Through the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, the IAEA advances and supports the safe and appropriate use of nuclear and related technologies to detect and control transboundary animal and zoonotic diseases.

“Through ZODIAC, we aim at making nuclear and related techniques widely available to national laboratories and providing them with a platform through which laboratories can analyse and visualize their data,” said Jean-Pierre Cayol, Programme Coordinator at the IAEA Department of Nuclear Applications. “ZODIAC gathers all of our technical expertise, knowledge, experience and support to ensure that laboratories have the capacity to support countries’ zoonotic response.” To date, countries have nominated 144 ZODIAC National Coordinators, who will act as focal points for ZODIAC matters, and a total of 112 National Laboratories to join the project.

ZODIAC builds on IAEA assistance provided to countries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since early 2020, the IAEA has shipped equipment packages, including RT–PCR machines and diagnostic kits, around the world, organised webinars on detecting the COVID-19 virus and produced multilingual educational videos on RT–PCR.

“ZODIAC is the way the IAEA is streamlining its support to countries to fight COVID-19 and be better prepared for the next pandemic through technology transfer and capacity building,” said Grossi.


ReNuAL 2

ReNuAL 2 is the name of the final phase of the modernization of the IAEA’s nuclear sciences and applications laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria. The centrepiece of this phase is the construction of a new, modern building to house the Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory, the Terrestrial Environment Laboratory and the Nuclear Sciences and Instrumentation Laboratory. ReNuAL 2 will also include new and improved greenhouses and a refurbishment of the current Dosimetry Laboratory facilities. The IAEA is seeking an additional €7.9 million in extrabudgetary contributions to reach full funding for construction of the new laboratory building.

The Animal Production and Health Laboratory, one of the laboratories that was upgraded through the Renovation of the Nuclear Applications Laboratories (ReNuAL) project, is the main laboratory that will support ZODIAC. The IAEA is cooperating with Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety (AGES) to ensure other laboratories can benefit from its research. They will gain from research conducted because of the technology and support the IAEA can transfer to countries.

The IAEA’s laboratories are a unique feature in the United Nations system. The nuclear applications laboratories in Seibersdorf focus on issues such as food and agriculture, human health, and environmental monitoring and assessment, as well as the use of nuclear analytical instrumentation. (Photo: IAEA)

September, 2021
Vol. 62-3

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