The International Atomic Energy Agency held a workshop this week to explore how nuclear techniques can help prevent outbreaks of monkeypox and Lassa fever under the IAEA’s Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative, with participants agreeing to step up joint efforts in fighting these viruses. The meeting was convened to assist countries in using nuclear and related techniques that can help detect, mitigate and understand the behaviour of such viruses.
Together with the IAEA, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and international experts in the field, more than 250 participants from ZODIAC national laboratories agreed to strengthen cooperation under this initiative and define research topics to understand the epidemiological role of animal carriers and reservoirs.
Both monkeypox and Lassa fever have been reported in Africa since the early 1970s. However, there is currently not sufficient data to fully understand the recent transmissions, including the ongoing outbreaks of monkeypox in 27 countries on four continents, where the virus is non-endemic.
“It is important that we are reacting quickly, as things happen. I am happy that concrete work is being carried out on something before it becomes a very difficult problem,” IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said when he opened the one-day workshop on the side-lines of this week’s IAEA Board of Governors meeting.
Using nuclear science and technology, the IAEA will work together with ZODIAC national laboratories in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America to fine-tune the diagnostic algorithms for the two diseases. These actions will contribute to improved understanding of how these viruses circulate in animals, how they survive in the environment and how they spread from species to species.
The IAEA, through the Animal Production and Health Laboratory of the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, will also be helping with the development of detection tools to assess the role of rodents and other mammal species in animal-human infections. This and other activities, such as the identification of research priorities and detection and characterization of monkeypox and Lassa viruses, will be done in line with the ongoing work of the FAO, the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH), and the WHO.
ZODIAC was launched in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic to improve national laboratory capacities to detect and control zoonotic diseases as early as possible. Building upon the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VETLAB) Africa and Asia networks, ZODIAC is centred on a network of national laboratories designated by 125 Member States.
“This was a very effective tool that we used also in Africa to track zoonotic and transboundary diseases,” DG Grossi said about the VETLAB network. “Combined with your own capacities and experiences from the FAO and WHO, I think we have a very powerful force that can help and protect people in these very difficult circumstances,” he added, referring to monkeypox, which originates in tropical rainforests in Central and West Africa.
As of 4 June, more than 780 cases of the disease have been confirmed in 27 countries, where the virus is non-endemic. According to the WHO, there may have been undetected transmission for some time leading to the current situation.
While the mortality of monkeypox is usually less than ten per cent, Lassa fever can be more fatal if organs such as the liver or kidneys are affected. In February, transmission of Lassa fever from West Africa has been confirmed in four cases in Europe, out of which three survived and one died. Even though this is not the first time the disease has been exported from West Africa, the causes of transmission remain unknown.
Meeting participants agreed that a system for screening the virus in domestic and wildlife environments is urgently needed, similar to the ones already developed for COVID-19. Experts and national coordinators also discussed how to utilize available diagnostic tools such as RT–PCR, one of the most widely used nuclear-derived laboratory methods for detecting various pathogens including COVID-19. Thanks to the IAEA assistance delivered during COVID-19, the Agency already dispatched RT-PCR kits to more than 300 laboratories around the world.
With the support of donors and cooperation with its partners, the IAEA will continue implementing ZODIAC, supporting Member States in acquiring the capacity and expertise to efficiently detect and diagnose zoonotic diseases using nuclear and related techniques.