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.
SILAB-FA installation to improve diagnostic processes
The installation of Sistema Informativo Laboratori (SILAB) for Africa (SILAB-FA)/Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) in four NVLs (Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Senegal) has enabled them to standardize diagnostic processes, from the submission and tracking of samples to the reporting of test results – with quality standards implemented in compliance with ISO/IEC 17025. “FAO’s support, including the installation of SILAB-FA in LANAVET Garoua, was instrumental in the laboratory’s accreditation under the ISO 17025 standard, as well as for the diagnosis of peste des petits ruminants (PPR) and contagious bovine pleuropneumonia by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay and PCR techniques,” said Abel Wade, Director-General of LANAVET in Cameroon. Furthermore, FAO ECTAD Ghana has also installed SILAB-FA with a One Health module at the Accra Veterinary Laboratory to assist the laboratory with the management of COVID-19 samples (including human samples), in accordance with international standards.
FAO ECTAD improved the provision of essential diagnostic equipment and training
To improve diagnostic capacity, the 14 veterinary laboratories of the ten countries supported by the GHSA since 2015 received high-value key equipment for molecular and serological diagnostics. This proved to be critical in the most recent HPAI H5N1 outbreak in Senegal. In January 2021, at the Government's request, FAO ECTAD assisted with the provision of sampling and personal protective equipment, laboratory reagents and consumables to the Directorate of Veterinary Services and the National Livestock and Veterinary Research Laboratory (LNERV) in order to continue the investigations of and response to the HPAI H5N1 strain.
The testing capacities of all the laboratories significantly increased from the start of the implementation of the GHSA projects. Out of the ten countries supported since 2015, only four were able to perform diagnostic tests for avian influenza in the first year of the programme. Today, all of the countries are able to carry out reliable tests for avian influenza detection using algorithms provided by the FAO/World Organisation for Animal Health Reference Laboratory –* Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie*. There has been a significant reduction in the time needed for laboratory confirmation. The average time taken for laboratory confirmation has fallen from 30 days in the first year of the programme to two days or less.
FAO has helped to successfully operationalize the NVLs of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which had not been in use for many years. Sierra Leone has now successfully confirmed African swine fever, PPR, foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) and Rift Valley fever. Liberia has accurately diagnosed rabies, while Guinea has detected anthrax, FMD, avian influenza (subtype H9), PPR and rabies. While no samples had been tested for many years in these laboratories, in 2019, Guinea tested 7 822 samples, Liberia tested 1 597 samples and Sierra Leone tested 2 117 samples. The development of this diagnostic capacity is a major achievement for the programme.
FAO’s work through the USAID-funded GHSA programme has been critical to ensuring the control of future outbreaks, as well as the prevention, detection and response to a range of emerging infectious diseases in West and Central Africa. By enhancing the capacities of laboratory and field staff, the number of reported disease outbreaks in the region increased on average by 15-20 percent (FAO, 2019).