Food Chain Crisis

FAO and IAEA assist Member Countries with guidance, validated procedures and equipment to detect and track COVID-19


As the COVID-19 disease caused by the new coronavirus strain SARS-CoV-2 continues to spread around the world, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in partnership with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is providing guidance, expertise and support to veterinary laboratories in many Member Countries to assist with the testing of human samples for SARS-CoV-2.

Upon identification of the new virus strain, the Joint FAO/IAEA Division, through its Animal Production and Health Section – a collaborating centre of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) – developed the emergency SARS-CoV-2 detection package. The Division formulated Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to identify, characterize and monitor the virus, following recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO). In addition, it worked closely with the Austrian Health Safety and Security Agency to verify and confirm the technical performance of the immunological and molecular detection kits that are included in the emergency package as well as those that are on the market and being used by our Member Countries.

Complementary to this work, the Joint FAO/IAEA Division and the FAO Animal Health Service have been involved in the OIE technical advisory group, provided technical support, and developed guidelines on COVID-19 at the animal-human interface and guidelines on SARS-CoV-2 testing.

Based on its experience with the detection and control of transboundary animal and zoonotic diseases around the world, the Joint FAO/IAEA Division has supported the real-time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (real-time RT-PCR) as the platform for COVID-19 detection (see box below). This technique is one of the most accurate and sensitive laboratory methods available today for detecting, tracking and studying the coronavirus. In response to emergency assistance requests from over 210 Member Countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean, the Joint FAO/IAEA Division has provided timely guidance and validated procedures on COVID-19 detection for 189 national veterinary diagnostic laboratories in 108 Member Countries, using its national veterinary diagnostic laboratory network (VETLAB) and its iVetNet Information Platform. iVetNet is a real-time access database dedicated to information-sharing and data storage on transboundary animal and zoonotic diseases, including tailored guidelines and validated procedures.

Overall, updated SOPs, reagent information and validation data have been disseminated to more than 297 medical and veterinary laboratories involved in COVID-19 testing. These efforts include one-on-one interactions between Member Country laboratories and the Joint FAO/IAEA Division’s laboratory to share knowledge, expertise, expert services and backstopping. The Joint FAO/IAEA Division, through the VETLAB Network has delivered emergency packages and provided technical guidance, expertise and know-how on laboratory assays, surveillance tools and molecular epidemiology. To date, emergency toolkits, equipment and reagents have been delivered to 45 national veterinary diagnostic laboratories worldwide. This activity complemented previous developments of veterinary laboratory capacities and capabilities (renovation, procurement, trainings, etc.) supported by the FAO Animal Health Service in many countries.

FAO, in partnership with IAEA, is planning to organize global and regional training courses for the benefit of Member Countries on various aspects of early detection and rapid diagnosis of coronaviruses and other zoonotic pathogens. These aspects include infections at the wildlife/livestock/environment/human interface(s), serological techniques for detection of antibodies, molecular techniques for detection of the virus, and advanced molecular techniques for molecular phylogeny and metagenomics of the SARS-CoV-2 like viruses.

Looking forward, the Joint FAO/IAEA Division is developing an action plan to foster research and development and innovation on zoonotic diseases, adopting a holistic approach to reduce the likelihood of human exposure to dangerous pathogens.

This work, and that of FAO Animal Production and Health, share a common goal to enhance FAO’s support to the Global Health Security Agenda and Emerging Pandemic Threats programmes. Action will emphasize early detection, surveillance and containment of emerging and re-emerging zoonotic diseases, with the aim of strengthening the capabilities of Members in terms of preparedness and response to zoonotic disease threats and outbreaks.

 Real-time RT-PCR and the FAO/IAEA Partnership Real-time RT-PCR is a nuclear-derived method for detecting the presence of specific genetic material from any pathogen, including viruses. It uses a specific enzyme to reverse transcribe virus RNA to DNA, and an enzyme to replicate, or amplify, a specific genetic region of a pathogen’s DNA 1 billion times in only 30 minutes. Scientists then detect and monitor this DNA amplification using special markers, usually fluorescent dyes (replacements of radioisotopes), to detect targeted genetic material of the DNA replicates. It is highly accurate, making it well suited for the precise identification of virus strains and bacteria. Therefore, it is the platform of choice for COVID-19 detection. For over 20 years, FAO has been training and equipping experts throughout the world on using the real time RT-PCR method, through laboratory networks in Africa and Asia including RESOLAB, EARLN, ASEAN laboratory network, and in partnership with IAEA, through its VETLAB network of veterinary diagnostic laboratories. FAO has also worked under the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) and Emerging Pandemic Threats (EPT) programmes through RESOLAB, EARLN, ASEAN Laboratory Directors’ Forum and the lab network in South Asia. In recent years, this technique has also been employed to diagnose other diseases, such as Ebola, Zika, MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV-1 and other major zoonotic and animal diseases. FAO continues to support development of laboratory capacity in over 35 countries through the Emerging Pandemic Threats Programme, including in partnership with IAEA where the Joint FAO/IAEA Division is supporting the development of veterinary diagnostic capacities in 108 countries through its VETLAB initiative, to test for emerging infectious and zoonotic diseases using PCR technique. The Joint FAO-IAEA Division, a unique division in the UN System with its own Agriculture and Biotechnology Laboratories – among which the Animal Production and Health Laboratory –, and the FAO Animal Health Division are in constant communication with other international organizations, including WHO and OIE, to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and contribute to the OIE high-level guidance for veterinary laboratories testing for SARS-CoV2.