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ZODIAC: Helping Prevent Future Pandemics with Nuclear Techniques

Scientists catch bats to test them for zoonotic diseases

Scientists catch bats in the jungles of Sierra Leone to test them for viruses using nuclear techniques. (Photo: L. Gil/IAEA)

Zoonotic diseases – or diseases which can pass from animals to humans – pose a significant threat to global health. The recent COVID-19 pandemic was a stark illustration of the importance of timely detection and monitoring when it comes to disease outbreaks. The IAEA is supporting countries around the world to use nuclear-derived techniques to help prevent future outbreaks or pandemics with its Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative, participants heard at a side event of the 67th IAEA General Conference taking place in Vienna this week.

At the Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC): Current Status and Future Direction event, representatives of IAEA Member States and Agency experts highlighted the actions undertaken through the initiative, launched by the IAEA in 2020. They presented the progress made over the past three years and how ZODIAC is supporting countries to be better prepared to detect, identify and address, as early as possible, the ongoing and potential outbreaks of emerging or re-emerging zoonotic diseases. Zoonotic diseases include diseases caused by bacteria, parasites, fungi or viruses that originate in animals and can be transmitted to humans.

‘Largest network’ of veterinary laboratories

“ZODIAC has made significant strides since it was launched and currently with its network of almost 130 ZODIAC National Laboratories comprises one of the largest networks of veterinary laboratories,” said Najat Mokhtar, Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications. “We have trained over one thousand veterinary professionals, provided equipment and guidance to laboratories and embarked on essential research activities all of which are essential to bring ZODIAC’s objectives to improve countries’ preparedness, to fruition,” she said. 

The ZODIAC network comprises both ZODIAC National Laboratories officially designated by their respective countries and 150 ZODIAC National Coordinators from all regions of the world. “Through the interregional technical cooperation project that supports the capacity building component of ZODIAC, the IAEA has supplied nearly 40 laboratories globally with molecular diagnostic and serology packages or next generation sequencing hardware platforms,” said Hua Liu, Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Technical Cooperation. “These will increase national capacities for the early detection, identification, monitoring, and tracing of zoonotic pathogens that cause diseases such as COVID-19 and monkeypox, and thereby help control their spread.”

“Zoonotic diseases such as Zika, Ebola, avian flu, and Mpox affect around 2.6 billion people yearly and are becoming more frequent and costly,” said Charles Lamien, an IAEA technical officer specialising in animal health. “By joining the ZODIAC National Laboratories network, countries can enhance their capacity to detect and monitor zoonotic pathogens at the animal-human interface. This enables them to minimize animal-to-human spill over events and potentially pandemics by containing outbreaks at an early stage.”

Training and international cooperation

Since the end of 2020, several virtual ZODIAC trainings have been conducted on biosafety, bio-risk, genetic sequencing, iVetNet and zoonotic pathogens identification using serological and molecular techniques. Four hands-on regional training courses were conducted in the past year at ZODIAC National Laboratories in Argentina, Bulgaria, Republic of Korea and Senegal. Workshops were held in person for veterinary laboratories in Africa and virtually for participants in Latin America, Europe and Asia and the Pacific to assess bio-risk management situations in these countries. Research and development activities were also planned, with technical and research contracts awarded to institutes in the Republic of Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia, Mongolia, Nepal, Thailand and Viet Nam. A coordinated research project to observe characteristics of zoonotic respiratory diseases, with research contracts awarded to 21 countries, will begin in the coming months.

The IAEA has continued to work with its partners the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations (FAO), as well as joining forces with key initiatives such as Preventing ZOonotic Disease Emergence (PREZODE) and with international experts. All of these partners have participated in ZODIAC training or research activities to tackle global zoonotic disease challenges. Avian influenza is just one of many zoonotic diseases which has recently had devastating consequences for public health around the world. Other emerging diseases such as Crimean-Congo Haemorrhagic Fever, Zika virus infection, Dengue and West Nile Fever are also threatening regions and the global community. In January, the first meeting of the ZODIAC Ad-Hoc Scientific Panel was held, attended by 17 scientists from 17 different countries. A virtual seminar on avian influenza brought together around 200 participants from over 90 countries in June, and in July a meeting was held in Kuwait City on zoonotic diseases.

Future direction

While the progress made so far would not have been possible without the generous contributions of ZODIAC donor countries, much still remains to be done. The IAEA will continue its work in building capacities at the existing ZODIAC national laboratories and the research component of ZODIAC will be strengthened to support collaborative research between Member States and the IAEA to develop and improve innovative techniques and methodologies. Another focus will be on collaborative network, radiomics and artificial intelligence models to support the scientific and medical community and advise countries for better disease management through ‘big data’ medical imaging from major sources worldwide.

Contributions from Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Israel, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and the United States of America, have led to €13.7 million being received and/or pledged towards the ZODIAC initiative, as of June 2023. 

All ZODIAC briefings, as well as educational videostraining videos and information are publicly available on the IAEA ZODIAC portal. Read more on the ZODIAC web page.

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