This year’s outbreak of monkeypox – as the world still grapples with health and socioeconomic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic – highlights the continued need to strengthen the preparedness and response capabilities of countries to deal with zoonotic diseases, participants agreed at an event on the margins of the 66th IAEA General Conference taking place in Vienna this week. Zoonotic diseases refer to bacteria, parasites, fungi or viruses that originate in animals and can be transmitted to humans.
At the event, titled Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC): Current Status and Future Direction, representatives of IAEA Member States and Agency experts highlighted the actions undertaken through the Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative, launched by the IAEA in 2020. They presented the progress made over the past two years and how ZODIAC is supporting countries to be better prepared to detect, identify and fight, as early as possible, the ongoing and potential upcoming outbreaks of emerging or re-emerging zoonotic diseases.
Preparing labs for action
The IAEA has upscaled its support to countries under ZODIAC: since its launch over 1000 people from 95 countries have been trained in improving laboratory testing procedures by aligning them with those of global veterinary diagnostic reference laboratories through virtual interregional training courses. Participants heard that the new ZODIAC Portal, a public web site launched this year that offers educational videos, training material and videos, currently attracts over 1000 visitors every month.
“ZODIAC gathers all our technical expertise and experience in responding to zoonotic diseases,” said Najat Mokhtar, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications. “Through training in the latest nuclear and related techniques, we are strengthening laboratories worldwide to be able to identify potential animal viruses and act before they cause human diseases.”
The ZODIAC network comprises 126 National Laboratories officially designated by their respective countries and 149 ZODIAC National Coordinators from all regions of the world. These laboratories actively engage in virtual training workshops, meetings and briefings, and have access to educational material. Nearly 40 laboratories are at various stages of receiving molecular diagnostic, serology or whole-genome sequencing packages from the IAEA to increase national capacities for the identification, monitoring, tracing and early detection of zoonotic pathogens that cause diseases such as COVID-19 and monkeypox, and thereby help control their spread. Laboratory staff will also be able to engage in research to understand why diseases become endemic.
ZODIAC for French-speaking countries in Africa
The first regional training course on the verification of Standard Operating Procedures for new serological and molecular techniques was delivered last week in West Africa. It was hosted by Institut Pasteur de Dakar (IPD) for 25 participants from French-speaking or Francophile African Member States under a Practical Arrangement signed in 2021 between IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi and IPD Director Amadou Alpha Sall, to increase cooperation under ZODIAC. IPD is a leading institution in public health, research and training in the field of infectious diseases.
“This arrangement addresses the common interests of the Agency and IPD in fighting zoonotic diseases and providing research and development activities using related technologies,” said Saiba Sylla, First Counsellor of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Senegal.
At the event, participants heard video testimonials from the first three ZODIAC fellows, from Indonesia, Senegal and Tunisia, who completed their three-month training last month on whole-genome sequencing of pathogens at the IAEA Seibersdorf laboratories.
“With this training and with support from the ZODIAC initiative, our institute will be able to conduct research using next generation sequencing technology, so we can characterize and control emerging and re-emerging zoonotic diseases in our country,” said Diana Nurjanah from the Indonesian Research Institute for Veterinary Science.
Mame Thierno Bakhoum, a research assistant at the National Laboratory for Livestock and Veterinary Research in Dakar, Senegal, said his country, under ZODIAC, would receive the same sequencing platform used in Seibersdorf. “This will help us sequence pathogens, in particular those of medical and veterinary interest. This will help us understand the evolution of these pathogens and how to control them,” he said.
Salma Ben Yahia from the Veterinary Research Institute of Tunisia said that she had learned how to prepare samples for sequencing, that is, how to choose the right bioligical sample and extract its DNA data for analysis. “Back home we will receive, in the context of the ZODIAC project, the necessary equipment for next generation sequencing [decoding the entire DNA of an organism].”
Securing funds remains a high priority, participants heard, to adequately equip and train staff at all ZODIAC National Laboratories and ensure they are prepared to engage in regional research projects to strengthen disease surveillance programmes to identify animal pathogens that could potentially transmit to humans. At the event, an additional USD 1 million was pledged towards ZODIAC by Saudi Arabia, bringing the total amount of contributions to the initiative so far to almost EUR 12 million.
“I am pleased to announce today a pledge of USD 1 million by Saudi Arabia to support the IAEA’s project to strengthen laboratories in tackling zoonotic diseases,” said Sharaf Al Sharif, Director of the Atomic Energy Sector at King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy. “We encourage other IAEA Member States to join us in donating towards the equipment and training so valuably needed and that can be delivered through ZODIAC.”
Additional regional trainings are planned for English-speaking African countries as well as Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean before the end of 2022.