The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on 1 April that it is dispatching the first batch of equipment to more than 40 countries to enable them to use a nuclear-derived technique to detect the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
This emergency assistance is part of the IAEA’s response to requests for support from around 90 member states in controlling an increasing number of infections worldwide.
Dozens of laboratories in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean will receive diagnostic machines and kits, reagents and laboratory consumables to speed up national testing, which is crucial in containing the outbreak.
They will also receive biosafety supplies, such as personal protection equipment (PPE) and laboratory cabinets for the safe analysis of collected samples. Further deliveries of equipment are expected in the coming weeks.
“IAEA staff are working hard to ensure that this critical equipment is delivered as quickly as possible where it is most needed,” said IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi. “Providing this assistance to countries is an absolute priority for the Agency.”
The IAEA is using its own resources as well as extrabudgetary funding for its emergency COVID-19 assistance.
Member states have so far pledged more than €9.5 million ($10.4m) in extra-budgetary financial contributions to the IAEA. This includes $6 million from the USA, $3.5 million from Canada and €500,000 from the Netherlands. Australia has also contributed. In addition, China has informed the IAEA about donations of detection equipment, kits, reagents and other medical materials worth $2 million and provision of expert services.
Following a telephone conversation last week with the director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Grossi said the IAEA is taking "concrete and coordinated action" to support global efforts against the pandemic. The IAEA is now also part of the UN Crisis Management Team on COVID-19.
IAEA said the first batch of supplies, worth around €4 million, will help countries use the technique known as real-time reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (real-time RT-PCR).
RT-PCR is the most sensitive technique currently available for detecting viruses. The nuclear-derived DNA amplification method initially used radioactive isotope markers to detect genetic material from a virus in a sample. However, refinement of the technique has led to the more common use today of fluorescent markers.
“Real-time RT-PCR is an established and accurate method to detect pathogens, " said Ivancho Naletoski, technical officer at the Joint Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO)/IAEA Division for Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.
The number of member states requesting support to run such tests has more than doubled in the past two weeks, he added.
“Laboratories will receive diagnostic kits and accessories needed for the analysis, disposable protective gear and equipment for the molecular detection of this specific viral genome.”
In recent weeks, the IAEA, in collaboration with the FAO, has offered guidance on coronavirus detection to 124 laboratory professionals in 46 member states through VETLAB, a network of veterinary laboratories in Africa and Asia. The support included the provision of Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) to identify the virus following WHO recommendations.
VETLAB helps participating countries to improve the early detection of transboundary animal and zoonotic diseases.
Photo: The nuclear-derived diagnostic technique known as real time RT-PCR can help detect and identify the novel coronavirus accurately within hours. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)