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National laboratory systems play a crucial role in preventing, detecting and responding to health threats. An integral part of these systems, veterinary diagnostic laboratories are at the centre of veterinary services’ control programmes for transboundary animal diseases (TADs).

TADs, including zoonosis, can have major impacts on economies, trade and food security. They can easily spread to other countries and reach epidemic proportions, with some affecting both humans and animals (zoonotic diseases). In this context, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Diseases (ECTAD), through the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) programme funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), has provided support to 14 national and subnational veterinary diagnostic laboratories. Since 2015, the programme has been implemented in ten countries in West and Central Africa (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Senegal and Sierra Leone). Since 2020, support is now also provided to the Niger and Nigeria. In addition, FAO ECTAD supports other countries in the region such as Benin, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Togo and Chad through various FAO Technical Cooperation Programme projects.

Having the capacity to detect, characterize and share information for decision-making on infectious agents was a major challenge for national veterinary laboratories (NVLs), which were often constrained by the lack of adequate facilities, inadequate implementation of biosecurity measures, and a lack of qualified staff or inefficient systems for rapid data exchange. For many years, NVLs in some countries, such as Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, were unable to diagnose animal diseases, including zoonotic diseases. The remaining countries were able to test, but with great difficulty. However, after continued support from FAO ECTAD, all of the NVLs in the ten countries in the region that have received GHSA support since 2015 are now able to diagnose some of the TADs and priority animal diseases, such as rabies, brucellosis, highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), viral haemorrhagic fevers, among others. In Sierra Leone, FAO supported the refurbishment of the veterinary laboratory and the reinforcement of the capacities of the laboratory staff in 2019. A year later, canine rabies was confirmed for the first time in many years. The efforts made in the area of veterinary detection and confirmation strengthened the national detection system. “We have been sending samples abroad for laboratory confirmation for a long time. The earlier we detect and confirm animal diseases, the faster we can implement prevention and control measures,” stated Mohammed Alpha Bah, Director of the Livestock and Veterinary Services Division of the Sierra Leone Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

The importance of having strong laboratories in COVID-19 times

During the COVID-19 pandemic, FAO ECTAD has collaborated in all ten countries with line ministries to improve coordination, capacity building, surveillance, laboratory strengthening and the enhancement of diagnostic capacity, conducting socio-economic and value chain studies, and expanding advocacy and risk communication. The support provided by FAO ECTAD to the NVLs has made a difference. In several NVLs in the region, work is currently being carried out to detect COVID-19 in animal samples and investigate and conduct follow-up testing of domestic animals in contact with COVID-19 patients. In Ghana, Accra, Pong-Tamale and Takoradi veterinary laboratories regularly test human samples for COVID-19 by real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR). In Cameroon, the National Veterinary Laboratory (LANAVET) in Garoua has assisted the Institute Pasteur by supplying culture media for sample testing. Liaising between the national veterinary services and the International Atomic Energy Agency, FAO has also contributed to strengthening the capacity of veterinary laboratories to detect COVID-19 in animal samples.

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