The incursion of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1 in North Africa has attracted the attention of the international community on veterinary services in this region. Most of veterinary diagnostic laboratories in North African countries are potentially capable of HPAI diagnosis and to perform the differential diagnosis of Newcastle disease, however, progress is needed for rapid detection and advanced characterization of viruses (for example subtyping and sequence analysis). Human and physical resources, including laboratory equipment, consumables and stocks are limited and supply must be ensured by many national laboratories. It is essential to harmonize the protocols, particularly PCR and to introduce virus isolation techniques into the routine of diagnostic laboratory, in order to reach a level where these techniques can be applied with complete reliability in case of suspicion. Support for the approach of setting in quality assurance of member laboratories is also a priority.

In this context, as an integral part of the REMESA (Mediterranean Animal Health Network) initiative, FAO-ECTAD Unit for North Africa and OIE at the Regional Animal Health Centre for North Africa (RAHC-NA) have decided to promote the establishment of a veterinary diagnostic laboratory network for avian influenza and other transboundary animal diseases (RELABSA) with the intention of raising the technical level and the level of collaboration of all national veterinary diagnostic laboratories in the region through training, technical support and information exchange within a sustainable framework. This network should also enable low technical level laboratories in a given field to take advantage of those most developed. The ultimate goal of this network is to identify and develop necessary and existing skills for the diagnosis of main animal diseases within the coverage area of REMESA. The proposed approach to this is (1) to develop the capacity of all laboratories in the area for suspected samples being treated locally in frontline testing (preliminary diagnosis of main animal diseases) (2) to identify, for each field of expertise (especially for advanced characterization of infectious agents), a proven expertise within the network that can be available for the network, and those network members can submit their biological materials for advanced research to these partners identified for each area. This network will enable and facilitate an effective early warning and rapid response for a better control of possible outbreaks, HPAI and other transboundary animal diseases.

The RAHC-NA and the coordinating institution of RELABSA are responsible to find funds, logistical and other support for the network operation. The main objectives of the RAHC-NA are: to help laboratories to strengthen capabilities in terms of equipment and training, to promote quality assurance in veterinary laboratories, and finally, to encourage joint working, information exchange and collaboration between laboratories of the countries in the region, but also with laboratories of Southern European countries which make part of REMESA (Spain, France, Italy and Portugal).