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ZODIAC Helps Lab Prepare for Early Detection of Future Pandemics

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When there is an outbreak of a zoonotic disease — an animal disease that can spill over from animals to humans, for example Ebola, Zika or COVID-19 — it is important to identify and characterize the causative agent quickly. A new IAEA initiative launched last year helps laboratories around the world to further enhance their capabilities and prepare to do exactly that with the use of nuclear and related techniques.

A virtual training course, organized by the IAEA in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) late last month, focused on training laboratory technicians and experts in improving their testing procedures by aligning them with those of global veterinary diagnostic reference laboratories. The training from 21-25 February 2022, which attracted almost 600 participants from 94 countries, was the latest activity in the IAEA’s Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative, an effort to prevent and mitigate future zoonotic pandemics.

For more than five decades, the IAEA has been transferring technologies to laboratories worldwide in the use of veterinary diagnostic techniques.  These include nuclear and related serological and molecular technologies (such as ELISA and PCR) for the early and rapid detection and characterization of transboundary animal and zoonotic pathogens. These highly sensitive and specific diagnostic techniques are the methods of choice in the early detection of diseases. In order to be used efficiently and contribute to the global efforts to fight more efficiently against the next zoonotic disease outbreak or pandemic, the prescribed and recommended procedures for disease detection and identification must be used in a quality assured manner. In other words, to make sure that their results are accurate and reliable.

“Before implementing any disease-detecting technique, laboratories need to ensure that a series of technical parameters are verified, so as to certify that the techniques are performing according to their intended purpose and at levels and margins expected from the reference laboratory,” said Ivancho Naletoski, a technical officer at the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.

The parameters that need to be verified by laboratories are analytical and diagnostic sensitivity and specificity, robustness, repeatability, reproducibility and uncertainty. The laboratory’s performance in international proficiency tests is also evaluated. The IAEA/FAO training provided methods to verify that assays’ performance complies with the expected criteria defined by developers.

“By getting technical parameters proven statistically and their alignment with international standards, laboratories around the world can provide comparable and reliable results and as such play a crucial role in identifying emerging disease outbreaks, as well as in the characterization of the causative pathogens,” Naletoski said.

ZODIAC in action

The trainees came from ZODIAC National Laboratories (ZNLs). These are specially designated laboratories, nominated by national governments, working with the IAEA to prepare for future disease outbreaks. ZNLs will be the first line of defence in the detection of zoonotic pathogens, enabling national authorities to implement proper control measures against future outbreaks and minimize or mitigate the risk of pandemics.

“Through the ZODIAC project we are providing veterinary diagnostic laboratories and their extension services support and the needed fit-for-purpose tools to enable them to identify dangerous diseases early,” said Michel Warnau, Section Head at the IAEA’s Department of Technical Cooperation. “The support should enhance their capacities and improve their laboratory proficiencies.”  

This virtual training will be followed by in-person, hands-on training courses.

Global cooperation is important as globalisation and climate change may be causing some animal diseases, and their vectors, to spread further. This has been evident in recent years with animal diseases, such as lumpy skin disease and African swine fever, which are now found outside  Africa and affect livestock in Asia and Europe as well.

Based on the materials from this course, IAEA and FAO experts will define standard operating procedures (SOPs) for generic verification of serological and molecular diagnostic techniques. This SOP will be made available to laboratories through a new IAEA ZODIAC Portal and disseminated through a series of practical, face-to-face training courses organized under ZODIAC.

ZNLs are now increasingly using the IAEA/FAO’s free genetic sequencing service. The service so far has been primarily used for sequencing and characterising the genetic material of animal pathogens but could play a larger role in characterization of zoonotic pathogens as well, contributing to the fight against zoonotic and epidemiology. In May 2022, the IAEA and FAO will initiate trainings for ZNLs on using this service.

“Through training courses like the one last month, we’re supporting a systematic and integrated approach that will strengthen countries’ preparedness and capabilities to rapidly and reliably detect and timely respond to outbreaks of such diseases in a quality assured way,” said Warnau.

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