IAEA forum on how nuclear science can help prevent outbreaks like COVID-19

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The Scientific Forum 2021, organised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) along with its annual general conference in Vienna last month, was dedicated to investigate the future and how nuclear science can further help the world to prepare for future zoonotic outbreaks like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Since its outbreak in the first quarter of 2020, the pandemic has caused more than 4.7 million deaths worldwide. Diseases of animal origin such as COVID-19 make up between 60 and 70 per cent of infectious diseases and affect 2.6 billion people every year, causing 2.2 million deaths on average annually. The IAEA launched its Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative in June 2020.  

The ZODIAC builds on the IAEA’s experience in assisting countries in the use of nuclear and nuclear-related techniques for the rapid detection of pathogens that cause animal diseases, including ones that spread to humans. 

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

An IAEA release said that during the Scientific Forum 2021, decision makers and leading experts in virology, immunology, veterinary medicine and radiology agreed to further work together in exchanging information and data, expanding the capacity for testing and detecting diseases, building strong global and national surveillance systems for detecting and characterising pathogens, and integrating innovative technologies into national and global monitoring infrastructures. 

Panelists at the Forum recognized ZODIAC as one of the important and timely global initiatives for enhancing response preparedness to pandemics using nuclear and related techniques. Currently more than 140 countries are participating in the project and the IAEA has already initiated capacity building activities and procurement of equipment for ZODIAC national laboratories in several countries.  

During the Forum, decision makers and leading experts in virology, immunology, veterinary medicine and radiology agreed to further work together in exchanging information and data, expanding the capacity for testing and detecting diseases, building strong global and national surveillance systems for detecting and characterizing pathogens, and integrating innovative technologies into the national and global monitoring infrastructure. 

“ZODIAC is not a project, it is not an idea, it is already delivering assistance as we speak. And we will and need to do much more. I was very happy to have listened to all the speakers at the Forum. I do not see any doubt about what needs to be done, but we need to do it now,”, the IAEA Director General said in his closing remarks. 

The IAEA said the Forum consisted of five sessions to deliberate separately on ways to prevent, prepare for and respond to future epidemics or pandemics with the help of nuclear science. The Forum attracted more than 100 participants and over 3,000 viewers online. Panelists concluded that closer coordination, collaboration, and communication towards scientific advancements in research, early detection and monitoring of zoonotic diseases are key in preventing or containing the next epidemic or pandemic such as COVID-19. 

Radiation techniques such as medical imaging can help determine the impact of zoonoses on human health and can be used for data analysis to support disease management. Addressing a session, Dina Husseiny Salama, Head of the Radiology Department at the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority explained the potential impact of radiomics — a method that extracts features from medical images using data-characterisation algorithms — and its use in the management of zoonotic diseases. 

The session titled “From Avian Flu to COVID-19 – the IAEA’s Support to Countries” looked at the experience of Argentina, Azerbaijan, Botswana, Cameroon and the Middle East region in detecting, identifying and managing zoonoses such as Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (H5N1), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-COV-1), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Ebola, and the virus that causes COVID-19. 

The IAEA also said that on the sidelines of its annual conference, representatives of ZODIAC and of the Preventing Zoonotic Disease Emergence (PREZODE) initiative launched by French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this year, agreed to build further collaborations to prevent the risk of zoonotic diseases emerging by signing the PREZODE Declaration of Intent on fighting such diseases that spread from animals to humans.   

PREZODE is an international initiative addressing the challenges related to the prevention, surveillance, early detection and rapid response to risks of zoonotic pandemics. It was launched by the French President in January 2021, in line with the recommendations of a report on biodiversity and pandemics published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in October last year. 

According to the IAEA, its experts will work closely together with PREZODE counterparts to explore areas of collaboration and foster synergies between the two initiatives, for instance in capacity building or through the participation of representatives of both initiatives at each other’s events on zoonoses. 

PREZODE involves more than 1,000 actors from universities, schools, national and regional authorities, development agencies, foundations, human, animal, environmental health, and private sector organizations, worldwide. The initiative, being co-developed by these various actors, will move towards its operational phase in 2022 with an international governance structure.

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