The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on April 2 said it is dispatching a first batch of equipment to more than 40 countries, designed to enable a nuclear-derived technique to rapidly detect the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The program is part of IAEA’s response to requests for support from its members.

“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 in a statement obtained by POWER. “Providing this assistance to countries is an absolute priority for the agency.”

IAEA, headquartered in Vienna, Austria, is a group that promotes the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The group advises its members about developing and operating nuclear power stations and disposing of radioactive waste. The agency also is providing information about the best practices for the radiation oncology medical community during the coronavirus pandemic.

Reverse Transcription–Polymerase Chain Reaction

Laboratories in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean will receive diagnostic machines and kits, reagents, and laboratory consumables to speed national testing. They also will receive biosafety supplies, including personal protective equipment (PPE), and laboratory cabinets for the safe storage of collected samples. The IAEA said the first order of supplies, worth about $4.4 million, will help countries use the technique known as real time reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (real time RT-PCR). The IAEA said this is the most sensitive technique available for detecting viruses.

“Real time RT-PCR is an established and accurate method to detect pathogens. We’ve seen the number of member state requests for support to run such tests more than double in the past two weeks,” Ivancho Naletoski, technical officer at the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/IAEA Division for Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, told World Nuclear News. “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.”

The group plans more deliveries of equipment in the coming weeks to other countries seeking assistance.

Millions in Funding

The IAEA is using its own resources as well as extra-budgetary funding for its emergency COVID-19 assistance. The group said its member states thus far have announced more than €9.5 million ($10.3 million) in extra-budgetary financial contributions to the IAEA for this purpose. The contributions include $6 million from the U.S. and about $3.54 million from Canada. China has reportedly donated detection equipment, kits, reagents, and other medical materials worth about $2 million, along with other services.

China also has made industrial irradiation facilities available for disinfection and sterilization of medical supplies. The country’s nuclear power plants also continue to prepare medical isotopes, allowing for the continued use of those materials for diagnosis and treatment of other illnesses.

“I am very grateful to the governments of the United States, Canada, China, the Netherlands and Australia for their generous contributions,” said Grossi. “I encourage others to contribute to this effort so that we can continue to swiftly respond to the growing demands from our member states.”

Grossi said the IAEA is now also part of the United Nations’ Crisis Management Team on COVID-19. The IAEA in its release Thursday said that, in collaboration with the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it has provided guidance on coronavirus detection to 124 laboratory professionals in 46 member states through VETLAB, a network of veterinary laboratories in Africa and Asia. That group originally was set up to combat rinderpest, a disease found in cattle. VETLAB helps participating countries improve the early detection of transboundary animal and zoonotic diseases, such as Ebola and COVID-19.

Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).