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Commemorating World Zoonoses Day – and the Role Nuclear and Nuclear-Related Techniques Play in Fighting Zoonotic Diseases

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Nuclear and nuclear-derived techniques play an important role in the diagnosis of zoonotic diseases. (Photo: F. El Mellouli/LRARC)

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 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.”

Today is World Zoonoses Day to highlight the importance of the ongoing work worldwide to prevent, detect, and pre-empt the spread of zoonotic pathogens, such as viruses. Detecting zoonotic pathogens in animal or human samples using techniques such as real time reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) offers a unique, accurate, sensitive and timesaving advantage compared to other methods for detecting viruses in animal or human samples. They can also be used to identify exposure to disease pathogens.

Ebola

During and after the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, researchers trained by the IAEA, in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), discovered bats suspected to be infected with the Ebola virus near villages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone. By testing the bats using nuclear-derived techniques, they confirmed the presence of the virus. This information helped authorities issue and implement measures to protect villagers from the illness, such as relocation or restrictions on forest use. Read more about how researchers hunt for viruses, such as Ebola, in Sierra Leone.

These testing capacities were developed through support from the IAEA, in partnership with FAO and in collaboration with the World Health Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health. From 39 countries, more than 140 African veterinary and public health experts were trained through regional training courses to carry out early diagnosis of zoonotic diseases using appropriate biosafety measures. They were also provided with the equipment and the diagnostic kits needed to perform diagnostic testing, such as RT-PCR tools, detection kits, biosecurity gear namely personal protective equipment. More than 250 African experts were also trained through national training courses to carry out safe and secure field and laboratory inspections of infected livestock and wildlife and collect samples for analysis.

Since the Ebola outbreak, the strengthened capacities have enabled countries in the region to better deal with other animal and zoonotic diseases. They were, for example, successfully used to fight the highly pathogenic avian flu outbreaks that struck in 2015, shortly after the Ebola outbreak.

Capacity to prevent, detect, pre-empt

With its expertise in nuclear science, the IAEA is uniquely placed to support veterinary and public health experts worldwide. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, for example, the IAEA has provided technical assistance to more than 312 medical and veterinary laboratories. To support testing, the IAEA has also provided equipment and laboratory supplies to 209 laboratories in 121 countries. As of 6 July, over €16.7 million have been committed to help countries in their fight against the COVID-19 global pandemic. Read more about the IAEA’s ongoing support in the fight against COVID-19.

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.

The IAEA’s assistance to countries through ZODIAC, builds on its proven track record of supporting countries with efficient and timely response to other outbreaks of zoonotic diseases such as the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza H5N1 (2003-ongoing); SARS, or the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-SARS-CoV-1 (2003); MERS, or the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (2016); Ebola (2014, 2018); and Zika (2016).

ZODIAC is part of the Agency’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.

To support capacity building and information exchange, the IAEA, in cooperation with the FAO, coordinates the VETLAB Networks in Africa and Asia. These networks are funded through the IAEA’s Peaceful Uses Imitative and the African Renaissance Fund. 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.

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