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30 March 2021
What’s Atomic Energy Have to Do With Pandemics? It Will Surprise You!
By Richard Seifman and A. Edward Elmendorf, UNA-NCA Board Members

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was founded in 1957 at the dawn of global interest in promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and as a means to determine and inhibit the extent to which a country is producing nuclear material which can be used for military purposes, including nuclear weapons. What most of us know about IAEA is its expertise in responding to nuclear accidents, as was the case in Japan with the Fukushima reactor, and in conducting conventional nuclear inspections of its 172 Member States. The most intensive attention has concerned its inspection responsibilities under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015.

But the IAEA has and fulfills many other functions building on its mission as the international authority to “encourage and assist research, development and the practical application of atomic energy for peaceful purposes.”

So, what does this have to do with COVID-19, epidemics, and pandemics? Everyone agrees we need to find ways to get ahead of future infectious diseases, any one of which can be devastating for mankind. A multisectoral approach for doing so lies in understanding and responding to the infectious disease interface between human and animal health, called “zoonotic diseases”, or more broadly the human-animal- environmental health linkages, referred to as “One Health.” Last September we disseminated a draft speech for a middle-income country for possible use in the UN General Assembly to propose that the UN Secretary-General convene an expert group to set out a UN One Health strategy.

Initiating practical action in the spirit of One Health under what could become one component of a larger UN strategy for One Health, the IAEA Director-General, Rafael Grossi of Argentina, has proved himself prescient in understanding that multidisciplinary capabilities involving United Nations agencies, academia, and the private sector, are needed. He sees IAEA as having an important role to play and is bringing this nuclear watchdog into the fray. As an article in the March 24, 2021 Foreign Policy Editors put it succinctly, “Rafael Grossi Has a Plan to Stop Future Pandemics:”

“On Grossi’s watch, the Vienna-based IAEA is deploying its extensive network of laboratories around the world, mainly in association with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization (WHO), to set up a global early warning system for animal-borne viruses, which are sure to follow COVID-19 and possibly become future pandemics.” And, it won’t just detect them if all goes according to plan. Grossi last June launched the so-called ZODIAC program, an acronym for Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action, which can potentially use such technologies as nuclear irradiation (a sterilizing technique used in blood transfusions) to destroy threatening viruses before they spread into another global pandemic.

“I think by this summer, we are going to already deliver equipment and training, especially to focal points in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America,” Grossi told Foreign Policy in an interview from his headquarters in Vienna.

Foreign Policy reported, “Grossi’s new initiative builds on previous IAEA efforts, including Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory — a network to help the IAEA’s 172 member states improve laboratory capacities to detect and control diseases threatening livestock and public health early. The agency is also working with the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health to monitor crops worldwide.”

This IAEA initiative is more than welcome by a global community continuing to experience the health, economic and social affects of COVID-19, and frightened about what might come next without ready answers. A very good start IAEA: We need to follow and support adding “nuclear” to our arsenal against a common enemy — infectious disease.