Zoonotic disease experts agree to use nuclear science against monkeypox, Lassa fever

June 13, 2022, 7:01AMNuclear News
IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi addresses workshop attendees. (Photo: IAEA)

The International Atomic Energy Agency convened a workshop last week to explore how nuclear techniques backed by the IAEA’s Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative could be used to avoid outbreaks of monkeypox and Lassa fever. The meeting, held in Vienna, Austria, on the sidelines of the IAEA Board of Governors meeting, was organized to assist countries in using nuclear and related techniques to detect, mitigate, and understand the behavior of the viruses.

“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,” said IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi as he opened the one-day summit.

The workshop: Staff from the IAEA, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and other international experts attended the workshop. More than 250 participants from ZODIAC national laboratories agreed to strengthen cooperation and define research topics to understand the epidemiological role of animal carriers and reservoirs.

Meeting participants agreed that a system for screening for the virus in domestic and wildlife environments—similar to systems already developed for COVID-19—was urgently needed, according to the IAEA. Experts and national coordinators discussed how to use available diagnostic tools such as RT–PCR, a nuclear-derived laboratory method for detecting pathogens including COVID-19. More than 300 laboratories around the world received RT-PCR kits from the IAEA during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The situation: Both monkeypox and Lassa fever have been reported in Africa since the early 1970s. Recent transmissions, including ongoing outbreaks of monkeypox in 27 countries on four continents—Australia, Europe, North America, and South America—are raising concern because they have occurred where the virus is not endemic. By June 4 more than 780 cases of the disease had been confirmed in 27 countries.

According to the WHO, “The confirmation of monkeypox in persons who have not traveled to an endemic area is atypical, and even one case of monkeypox in a non-endemic country is considered an outbreak. . . . The sudden and unexpected appearance of monkeypox simultaneously in several non-endemic countries suggests that there might have been undetected transmission for some unknown duration of time followed by recent amplifier events.”

While the mortality of monkeypox is usually less than 10 percent, the mortality rate from Lassa fever can be higher. Out of four confirmed cases reported in Europe in February, three individuals survived and one died.

The plan: Using nuclear science and technology, the IAEA will work together with ZODIAC national laboratories in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America to adjust the diagnostic algorithms for monkeypox and Lassa fever to improve the global understanding of how the viruses 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 help develop detection tools to assess the role of rodents and other mammal species in animal-human infections.

About ZODIAC: ZODIAC was launched during the COVID-19 pandemic to improve national laboratory capacities to detect and control zoonotic diseases. Building upon the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VETLAB) Africa and Asia networks, ZODIAC relies 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,” Grossi said about the VETLAB network. “Combined with your [VETLAB’s] 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 the monkeypox outbreak.

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