How Nuclear Technology Can Help in Controlling the Spread of Infectious Diseases

Real time reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) is the most accurate and widely used method in many countries to detect the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. But did you know that real-time RT-PCR is in fact a nuclear-derived virus detection technique? Originally, this nuclear technique utilised radioactive isotope markers to determine the presence of viruses in humans and animals, but ensuing improvement has led to the replacement of isotopic labelling with special markers, most frequently fluorescent dyes.

Many countries struggled to test more people for the COVID-19 while facing a shortage of detection kits. At the 64th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently held in September, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi reported to all member states how the IAEA stepped up and implemented its largest-ever operation helping countries respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Agency provided diagnostic kits, equipment and training in nuclear-derived detection technique to 123 member states, including most of the Southeast Asian countries.

The IAEA, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the World Health Organization (WHO) jointly provided technical guidance on COVID-19 detection using the real time RT-PCR, including webinars, to train laboratory and health care professionals from most of the IAEA member states. Highlighting the use of nuclear technology for virus detection, the IAEA launched the Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative, in collaboration with FAO and WHO, in June. This effort is aimed at improving detection and response capabilities of countries to prevent pandemics caused by bacteria, parasites, fungi or viruses that originate in animals and can be transmitted to humans. It uses an integrated research approach and nuclear-derived techniques.

For over 50 years, the use of nuclear techniques in medicine and nutrition has become one of the most extensive peaceful applications of nuclear technology. Nuclear-derived technique has been used in the rapid detection and identification of viruses that are causing some of the world’s most dangerous diseases in the recent past, such as Avian Flu, Ebola and Zika.

What can Southeast Asia do? The region’s expertise in nuclear applications in public health is not lacking. Local expertise, as a result of decades of research and training, has grown steadily as demonstrated recently by the Vietnamese authorities controlling the spread of African Swine Fever using nuclear-assisted technique in 2019.

Higher education plays an essential role in nuclear capacity building that includes nuclear applications in disease surveillance and prevention. Despite the absence of operable nuclear power plants in Southeast Asia, several universities and knowledge centres in the region continue to offer institutionalised academic programmes and research activities in nuclear sciences and engineering.

Indeed, the role of nuclear technology in public health, especially in producing testing kits in times of disease outbreaks and pandemics, reflects the importance of maintaining and even investing more in the region’s nuclear education programmes.

ASEAN member states, especially those that have very limited testing coverage and capability, could tap into the robust assistance offered by the IAEA, such as the ZODIAC initiative, so as to benefit from nuclear technology applications in disease surveillance and prevention in the context of COVID-19 and other future pandemics.

The ASEAN-IAEA Practical Arrangements on the peaceful uses of nuclear technology, signed in 2019, would be a useful framework for knowledge and technology transfer to Southeast Asian nations. Furthermore, ASEAN member states can maximise the burgeoning cooperation among their nuclear regulatory bodies through the ASEAN Network of Regulatory Bodies on Atomic Energy. Another area of growing cooperation is by the regional training centres of excellence on nuclear security and safety. The applications of nuclear technology in disease surveillance ought to be regularly included in training programmes/courses, workshops and other modalities of knowledge sharing among these regional institutions. This is not only for the COVID-19, but also in dealing with other communicable diseases that may break out in the future.