United NationsDepartment of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development

Supporting countries’ response to COVID-19

United Nations / Multilateral body

    A key to containing the global pandemic is diagnostic testing with fast results and one of the most accurate methods for detecting the virus is a nuclear-based technique called real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). In response to the pandemic, the IAEA launched an assistance mission in March 2020 through an interregional project facilitating the transfer to countries of the RT-PCR technique as well as equipment and expertise to detect COVID-19 rapidly and accurately. This technique is well known and widely used, achieving results in few hours and detecting the disease with 90% reliability.

    Implementation of the Project/Activity

    The project was built on previous interventions related to outbreaks such as the Ebola virus, avian influenza and the Zika virus. Countries requesting IAEA assistance have designated public human health and veterinary laboratories that work directly on COVID-19 detection. The IAEA has contributed in fulfilling the laboratories’ needs, taking due consideration of WHO’s daily epidemiological situation reports related to a specific country. Based on that assessment, the IAEA provided RT-PCR equipment, diagnostic kits, consumables and personal protective equipment for the safe analysis of samples, guidance and educational material in five UN languages. The IAEA has activated emergency procurement mechanisms and standardized procurement packages facilitating the management of many requests in a short period of time and simplifying the administration and tracking of deliveries. IAEA officials with the support of Member States representatives in Vienna and National Liaison Offices (NLOs) in the recipient countries have helped expedite requests and shipment logistics with designated national laboratories. The IAEA has monitored and evaluated the assistance through a results-based framework: 1. pre-notifications of shipments have been sent systematically; 2. daily reports have been produced and a weekly brochure is made available to the public; and 3. a survey is sent out to collect information on the relevance, effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability of the assistance provided. The project is financed with resources from the IAEA and extra-budgetary contributions totalling EUR36.5 million, of which EUR27.1 million were contributed by donor Member States and private entities.


    The capacities of 286 public laboratories in 128 countries - of which 44 are in Africa, 28 in Asia and the Pacific, 32 in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 24 in Europe and Central Asia, including 33 in least-developed countries - have been strengthened to detect and manage COVID-19. 286 complete RT-PCR sets have been ordered of which 256 have been delivered to the end-users and are already in use. 27 webinars have been held with an audience of more than 9,900 people and 20 practical videos can be accessed at the IAEA Human Health Campus aimed at lab workers. Health workers and decision-makers can now 1. identify whether a person has the disease; 2. indicate the level of severity so that treatment can be initiated; 3. study the disease and traceability of confirmed cases; 4. relax or impose measures to limit exposure to the virus; and 5. scale up laboratory testing strategy.

    Enabling factors and constraints

    Enabling conditions: 1. Effective resource mobilization: the IAEA has brought together donor countries and private enterprises for financial support; 2. Coordination with UN agencies: the IAEA, in collaboration with FAO, works closely with WHO and OIE; 3. Experience and technical rigour: for more than 20 years, IAEA experts have trained technicians and equipped laboratories around the world to use RT-PCR. Constraints: The impact of COVID-19 resulted in limited availability of equipment and materials, border closures and transportation constraints, high global demand, and supply chain delays.

    Sustainability and replicability

    IAEA has provided expertise to national laboratory staff so that national skills and capabilities are self-sustaining. The equipment supplied can be used for a wide range of laboratory applications and for future outbreaks. IAEA continues to provide assistance for COVID-19 and enhancing global response preparedness against the outbreaks of zoonotic diseases. In this regard, in June 2020, the IAEA launched the Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative. Through its interconnected pillars, ZODIAC envisages increasing global response preparedness in the monitoring and early detection of pathogens in the animal/human interface, using nuclear, nuclear-derived and molecular biology techniques, to prevent the outbreaks of zoonotic diseases. ZODIAC also envisages providing increased access to reliable data for Member States to better understand the impact of zoonotic diseases on human health and for science-based decision making, based on radiation imaging technologies or radiomics.

    Other sources of information

    https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/iaea-provides-over-100-countries-with-covid-19-detection-equipment https://www.iaea.org/topics/covid-19/iaea-assistance-for-the-rapid-detection-and-management-of-covid-19 https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/20/08/covid-19_iaea_assistance.pdf https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/multimedia/videos/how-do-covid-19-tests-work-rt-pcr-explained http://www.iaea.org/topics/covid-19 http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/how-is-the-covid-19-virus-detected-using-real-time-rt-pcr https://www.iaea.org/topics/health/infectious-diseases/covid-19/webinars https://www.flickr.com/photos/iaea_imagebank/collections/72157713968972987

    COVID-19 Impact

    The project is expected to better prepare Member States in producing timely and credible science-based information for more coherent and effective national, regional and international response in future. The project will support countries in creating infrastructure through the provision of equipment, training and necessary research and development tools. The project will maintain a network of laboratories for storing and exchanging scientific and technical information relevant to the project among the participating laboratories to ensure sustainability.

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    01 March 2020 (start date)
    31 December 2021 (date of completion)
    Other beneficiaries

    Beneficiaries: People living in countries that have requested IAEA support, especially in developing and least developed countries. Key stakeholders: Public human health and veterinary health laboratories in countries, Ministries of Health, Permanent Missions, IAEA National Liaison Offices in the countries Partnerships: Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), World Health Organisation (WHO), World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

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