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Through Ongoing Webinars, IAEA Helps Labs Address Technical Challenges in COVID-19 Testing


Javier Romero, IAEA Programme Management Officer, attends the ongoing IAEA and WHO-WPRO webinar series. (Photo: O. Yusuf/IAEA)

The IAEA is hosting a series of webinars to provide technical advice and assistance to testing laboratories related to the detection of the virus causing COVID-19. The webinars are delivering expert guidance to counterparts from around the world in English, French, Russian and Spanish.

As a member of the WHO-led UN Crisis Management Team for COVID-19, the IAEA has been providing diagnostic kits, equipment and essential information on  virus detection techniques to countries requesting assistance. Beginning on 2 September, the Agency began implementing a succession of informative webinars designed to clarify how molecular diagnostic laboratories should be established, equipped and their processes quality-controlled to ensure that samples are appropriately received, stored and tested using real time RT-PCR.

“The exchange of knowledge and experience among experts is invaluable as we gain new insights into the virus and how it affects the body,” said May Abdel-Wahab, Director of the IAEA Division of Human Health. “The sharing of expertise is essential to improve the management of COVID-19, including avoidance of pitfalls in testing - an essential tool in the efforts to contain the pandemic.”

The online sessions complement the assistance that the IAEA is providing to laboratories worldwide in its largest technical cooperation (TC) project to date with the supply of essential equipment and materials to strengthen the capacities of the national laboratories designated for the detection of COVID-19. The sessions are addressed to staff who work in the molecular diagnostic laboratories that have received equipment and materials through IAEA assistance.

Collecting, testing and interpreting sample results

IAEA and international experts will deliver the same curriculum to the attending laboratory researchers, technicians and other healthcare professionals working in human and animal laboratories in all languages, via a four-session webinar.

The first session of each webinar series establishes and clarifies the laboratory requirements for the effective use of real time RT-PCR, including the biosafety and bio-security frameworks which are necessary to ensure the accuracy of test results.

The second session explores the best practices of sample collection and preparation for RT-PCR tests, demonstrating how samples should be properly collected, packaged, transported and received by diagnostic laboratories. Additionally, the session will guide participants in the development of appropriate laboratory conditions and procedures to prevent the contamination of samples, especially by nucleic acids which can increase the risk of false positive results.

The third session addresses a number of questions surrounding the interpretation and acceptance of results. What quality assurance and control measures can be applied during testing procedures? What requirements exist for clinical and analytical validation? How exactly are PCR results interpreted by laboratory technicians? 

Finally, the four webinar series will each conclude with a unique, ‘problem-solving’ session, during which any outstanding technical concerns and challenges of the participants are expected to be addressed by IAEA experts and guest speakers.

The Spanish and English language webinars were launched on 2 and 15 September, respectively, and will continue on a bi-weekly basis until their conclusion in October 2020, with French and Russian editions of the webinar series following shortly thereafter. 

All webinars are recorded and made available on the Human Health Campus website to ensure that information remains accessible and can be tapped into at the convenience of the viewer.

Joining forces with the World Health Organization

In addition, the IAEA is also delivering virtual guidance in collaboration with the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific Regional Office (WHO-WPRO). Together, the IAEA and WHO-WPRO are organizing webinars to help strengthen the testing capacities of laboratories in Asia and the Pacific.

“These webinars are dedicated to the discussion of ‘hot’ topics that may present challenges in the practical work of laboratories testing for COVID-19,” said Tamano Matsui, Acting Regional Emergency Director for the WPRO. “We have invited the leading experts from WHO-appointed global reference laboratories for COVID-19 to talk about these topics and answer questions from laboratory practitioners.”

The organization of this webinar series follows a June 2020 meeting between experts of the IAEA, WHO and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), who collectively agreed on a short-term action plan to support response of countries in Asia and the Pacific to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this plan, the IAEA has agreed to develop and share lab guidelines and standard operating procedures, deliver expert services as needed and continue to supply reagents for PCR detection kits and other laboratory consumables.

“This webinar series is expected to fill persisting gaps in the knowledge of COVID-19 testing for countries in the Western Pacific,” said Jane Gerardo-Abaya, Director of the IAEA TC Division for Asia and the Pacific, in her opening remarks to the first webinar’s participants. “They complement the existing, and growing, body of information produced by the IAEA to help curb the spread of the virus.”

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