Nuclear-derived diagnostic techniques can be used to detect the new coronavirus causing COVID-19.

The nuclear-derived diagnostic technique known as RT-PCR can help detect and identify the novel coronavirus accurately within hours (Credit: D. Calma/IAEA)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is to provide diagnostic kits, equipment and training in nuclear-derived detection techniques to countries tackling the spread of the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi announced the steps earlier this week.

Fourteen countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean have already requested assistance from the Agency. It comes as part of “intensified global efforts to contain infections,” the IAEA says.

The IAEA notes that nuclear-derived techniques are important tools in the rapid detection and characterisation of viruses like the one causing COVID-19.

In particular, Real-Time Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction, or RT-PCR, can detect and identify the novel coronavirus “accurately within hours” in humans and animals.


How the IAEA is supporting COVID-19 detection

IAEA is planning to host its first training course in detection techniques is at the Joint IAEA/Food Agriculture Organisation Animal Production and Health Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria, in two weeks.

Medics and veterinary experts from a range of countries are expected to attend. They include Cambodia, Republic of Congo, Cote d´Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Viet Nam.

Further regional courses will be organised for countries, including those from Latin America and the Caribbean, the IAEA says.

The IAEA says participants will be trained in biosafety and biosecurity procedures. These procedures aim to protect workers during sampling and analysis and to prevent further external contamination.

In addition, they will receive emergency toolkits with personal protection equipment, diagnostic reagents and laboratory consumables.

Several national laboratories will also receive equipment, such as bio-safety cabinets and RT-PCR devices.

The IAEA says training of veterinary experts is being included to increase countries’ preparedness in the early detection of viruses that cause zoonotic diseases – those that originate in animals and can spread to humans.

Vets will be trained to test both domestic and wild animals involved in the transmission of coronaviruses, including the new strain SARS-CoV-2 causing COVID-19.


The IAEA’s role in health

Although the IAEA has “no role in controlling the disease” it has expertise and experience in helping to detect outbreaks of certain viral diseases and in diagnosing them.

“The Agency takes pride in its ability to respond quickly to crises, as we did in the recent past with the Ebola, Zika and African Swine Fever viruses,” Grossi told the Agency’s Governing Board.

“Contributing to international efforts to deal with the coronavirus will remain a priority…as long as the outbreak persists,” he added.

The assistance to countries in tackling COVID-19 is delivered through the IAEA’s technical cooperation programme, which supports the peaceful application of nuclear technology.

The coronavirus crisis, has already impacted global markets and significantly reduced oil demand since it took hold in China in January.