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Preparing for Zoonotic Outbreaks: Scientific Forum Opens


The IAEA 2021 Scientific Forum on Preparing for Zoonotic Outbreaks: The Role of Nuclear Science commenced today. (Photo: F.Llukmani/IAEA)

The obvious lesson from the pandemic is the lack of global preparedness to respond early to the outbreak of zoonotic diseases. The IAEA dedicated its Scientific Forum to investigate the future and how nuclear science can further help the world to prepare for future zoonotic outbreaks.

“We are under a pandemic as we speak and it is not an abstract problem,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi at the opening of the 2021 Scientific Forum. “We want this Forum to be a space to exchange views with a robust scientific content, but most importantly we want to address what needs to be done now, and what is needed to put this [pandemic] behind us and to prevent such a thing from happening again.”

Introducing the other opening speakers, Director Generals Qu Dongyu of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Tedros Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization (WHO) and Monique Eloit of the World Organisation of Animal Health (OIE), Mr Grossi added: “We will bring together the best we can do with a one health approach.” The one health approach recognises that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment.

With technological and scientific progress in the use of nuclear and related techniques in detecting zoonotic diseases – diseases transmitted from animals to people – this year’s Scientific Forum examines how these techniques play a role in helping countries detect, mitigate and prevent the outbreak of zoonotic diseases.

The Forum is taking place in Vienna along with the IAEA’s 65th General Conference over the next two days. Senior officials and leading experts discuss the latest developments in the preparation and mitigation of global zoonotic outbreaks. The event features five sessions. For the full programme, click here.

The live streaming of the Scientific Forum is available here.

Opening session

During lockdowns caused by COVID-19 that began in March 2020, the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture guided countries on the detection of the virus causing COVID-19, through its Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory Network (VETLAB). VETLAB has helped over 60 countries detect and control animal and zoonotic diseases, including COVID-19. This progress will continue with IAEA’s Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative, launched last year.

Mr Dongyu, noted that the “FAO has been working closely with the IAEA since 1964 to contribute to sustainable food security and safety by using nuclear techniques and biotechnology. Through our joint multi-disciplinary laboratories, and close collaboration with other organisations such as the OIE, we have been collaborating to develop technologies and applications in animal disease diagnosis.”

The IAEA, as a member of the United Nations Crisis Management Team for COVID-19 and in coordination with WHO, provided assistance to 129 countries through the provision of equipment to detect COVID-19 and support training—the largest Agency technical cooperation project ever.

Mr Ghebreyesus added that the “WHO recognises the contribution of the IAEA in improving global veterinary lab capacity to strengthening health systems and pandemic preparedness and response globally. This complements the frameworks and mechanisms put in place by WHO as well as our partners.”

Ms Eloit of OIE noted that “as the world’s population continues to grow and compete for diminishing resources, we are reminded more than ever that the health of humans, animals and other organisms is of importance. Collectively we need to be more intelligent and adapt system syncing in our work. One Health describes a multisectoral approach to health of animals, humans and other organisms.”

A leading expert in infectious diseases, Director of the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), Christian Happi, discussed the case of Ebola in Nigeria, where they could overcome the disease in record time and show how the world can learn lessons from this. “By the time we detect and categorise an emerging pathogen, it’s often too late. But we’re in a cusp of a new era, we can change it. We heard the IAEA Director General talking about ZODIAC, it is one of those initiatives, building on knowledge, technology, capacity building, training with which we can overcome threats.”

Keynote speaker and UN Messenger of Peace, Jane Goodall, explained how zoonotic diseases occur through the human treatment of animals and the movement of their pathogens: “If one of these pathogens such as a bacteria or virus jumps into a human, then it may cause one of these new zoonotic diseases.” She continued to state: “It’s become very clear that human health and well-being is closely linked with the health of the environment which in turn, depends on the health of the animals and plants that make up the biodiversity of an area and ecosystem. We’ve got a window of time where we can try and turn things around, but I don’t think it’s a very big window and it’s closing…we must take action, together, and we must take action, now.”

“In the context of recurring health emergencies, almost always linked to infectious diseases, often of zoonotic origin, it is important to begin to examine and raise awareness of the role that can be played by science in general, and nuclear science in particular, in preparing for and responding to these public health threats,” said Khalid Ait Taleb, Minister of Health of Morocco.

Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development of Albania, Ermira Gjeci, shared her country’s experience: “Nuclear and similar technologies have played an important role in animal health, especially in relation to the diagnosis of diseases and the characterisation of pathogenic organisms. In Albania, from May 1 to August 15, 2021, we had outbreaks of bird flu in domestic birds and wild birds.” She added that the use of molecular biology methods made obtaining the results in 24 hours possible in order to ensure that we take immediate measures.

Honduras, too, has suffered from animal and zoonotic diseases and has successfully applied nuclear techniques to control them, said Karen Najarro, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of Honduras.

“In recent years, our country has suffered from various zoonotic diseases, such as dengue, Zika and Chikungunya, transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. We believe the international community must be able to tackle such emergencies. The IAEA has been a strategic partner in this fight. This pandemic has shown that lower middle-income countries like Honduras need international assistance to face these challenges. ZODIAC, through its five pillars, will clearly be central to helping Member States improve and implement new diagnostic methods.”

Amadou Alpha Sall, Director of the Dakar Pasteur Institute in Senegal summed up the need for three steps in tackling zoonotic disease outbreaks:

  1. to build a global surveillance system based on technologies focused on local competence,
  2. to detect zoonoses early in order to report them and develop tools to trace them, such as real-time PCR and rapid tests, and
  3. to talk to the community and learn from them about their needs.

The discussion continues in five sessions during the two-day programme.

Overview of the sessions

Session 1: Techniques for Detecting Pathogens and Monitoring Zoonoses

The first session will focus on the tools used to mine the interface of animals, people and the environment to solve problems that globally impact health and conservation. This will be followed by a discussion about the role of research for the early detection of novel pathogens and their progress towards disease.

Session 2: Understanding the Emergence of Infectious Diseases at the Animal-Human Interface

It is important to identify emerging and re-emerging zoonoses and understand when and how to react to a zoonotic disease outbreak. This session will acknowledge this, alongside learnings from the past which will consider the contribution and roles of the ecosystem, animals and humans in a true one-health response to zoonotic outbreaks.

Session 3: The Role of Radiation Techniques in Dealing with the Impact of Zoonoses on Human Health

The role of medical imaging and radiomics in the management of zoonotic diseases will be explained. The use of new technological enablers for early and effective response, namely, artificial intelligence and machine learning will be brought to the forefront.

Session 4: From Avian Flu to COVID-19 – the IAEA’s Support to Countries

The IAEA uses nuclear technology to help countries prevent and tackle zoonotic disease outbreaks. Responses to the Avian Flu in Azerbaijan, the Respiratory Sydrome-MERS in the Middle East, Ebola in Cameroon and COVID-19 in Botswana will be presented by experts in each field. The session will be rounded up with acknowledgment on combatting COVID-19 through detection, diagnosis and management.

Session 5 and Closing: Enhancing Global Preparedness to Control Zoonotic Diseases: ZODIAC

The final session of the forum will review the main conclusions and discuss enhancing global prepared in controlling zoonotic diseases with the IAEA’s recently launched action plan – ZODIAC.  

Recordings of all sessions are also available here.

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