On April 14, the US Mission to the International Organizations in Vienna issued a press release declaring that the State Department had contributed $11 million to a project fighting Covid-19 by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA. The donation was mentioned by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a press briefing on May 6.
The Vienna-based IAEA, mostly known for its role in policing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, began the largest technical cooperation project in the agency’s history, to fight Covid-19, in early March.
As Rafael Grossi, the head of the UN body, tweeted recently, “Our technical cooperation project to fight the pandemic is the biggest in the history of the Agency.”
The project involves the agency shipping free Covid-19 testing equipment and other laboratory consumables to hundreds of labs in the developing world. According to the UN agency, it can procure the test kits at a discount from registered international suppliers.
The tests to diagnose the virus use a nuclear-derived technique called real time reverse transcription — polymerase chain reaction (real time RT-PCR). According to the IAEA, the method is currently “one of the fastest and most accurate detection methods” to diagnose the virus that causes Covid-19.
The UN agency has expertise in this area because the RT-PCR test originally used radioactive markers. The method has been refined so that fluorescent markers are now employed instead. “Such tools are the only means to have certainty,” said Enrique Estrada Lobato, an IAEA nuclear medicine physician, in early March.
In addition to the funding from the US, other, mostly Washington-friendly countries, have donated to the project in the last two months. So far, it has received about $4.3 million from Japan, about $3.5 million from Canada, $2 million from Norway, $540,000 each from Germany, the Netherlands and Russia, $216,000 from Finland as well as money from Australia and others. In addition, China has announced in-kind support worth $2 million.
China is making still-bigger donations to the WHO, however. President Xi Jinping announced at the World Health Assembly in Geneva on May 18 a pledge of $2 billion to the organization to help it fight Covid-19 globally.
The US participated in the Assembly to criticize the WHO. Alex Azar, who runs the federal Department of Health and Human Services, said: “We must be frank about one of the primary reasons this outbreak spun out of control: There was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives.”
The US has withheld $550 million from the WHO since April, so its $11 million donation to the UN nuclear agency is paltry in comparison but significant for the IAEA. On May 19, President Trump threatened in a tweet to permanently end US financing to the WHO and “reconsider” the country’s membership in the agency if it did not “commit to major substantive improvements” within 30 days.
This month, the Japanese pharmaceutical giant Takeda committed to donating around $4.6 million to support the IAEA project. The payment is one of the largest private-sector donations ever to the agency.
Voluntary pledges by UN member states to the project so far total around $23.7 million, with the US contributing the largest share. The US is the largest contributor to the overall IAEA budget, providing an estimated $200 million annually in assessed and voluntary contributions.
The US had strongly supported Grossi, an Argentine career diplomat, as a candidate to become the agency’s director-general in December 2019. Diplomats in Vienna said the US backed his candidacy by sending statements of support to members of the agency’s board, just before the final round of secret balloting.
The recent financial donation by the US also comes as the Trump administration said it was planning to submit a draft Security Council resolution to extend the arms embargo in the Iran nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. If the Council does not agree to extend the arms ban, which expires in October, the US said it would try to trigger the snapback provision in the deal and thereby end it entirely.
“The US feels that the IAEA does a great job as a technical agency, particularly when it comes to monitoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and appreciates the fact that it is not getting too much into politics,” said Angela Kane, who served as the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs until 2015 and is now a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.
“While the large US financial contribution to the Covid-19 project can be seen as a sign of general support of the IAEA’s work, at the same time it can be interpreted as a snub to the WHO, which is the traditional health agency in the UN system,” Kane told PassBlue. The WHO has also begun shipping testing equipment mainly to developing countries.
So though the two UN agencies are operating in the same business, the Trump administration now appears to be more comfortable contributing to a technical agency rather than a specialized UN entity. Trump has accused the WHO of being too friendly toward China and of “severely mismanaging and covering up” the coronavirus pandemic.
“There is one other thing that is at play here,” Kane added. “Looking at the list of countries donating to the IAEA’s project, it seems to me that Washington maybe talked to some of their close friends so that they are not the only country sticking out.”
While the Vienna agency may not be the most natural UN body to fight a global health crisis, it has historically played a role in detecting outbreaks of viral diseases. Its lab in Seibersdorf, just outside Vienna, has developed testing kits for Ebola, Zika and African swine fever, using nuclear-derived techniques in diagnostics.
“The IAEA is not a specialized health agency and has no role in controlling the disease,” Grossi, the director-general, told the agency’s board of governors in March. “But we do have expertise and experience that helps in detecting outbreaks of certain viral diseases and in diagnosing them.”
Ingrid Kirsten, a senior research associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, echoed this point. “The IAEA is much more than a nuclear watchdog. Nuclear sciences and technologies have a wide range of applications in agriculture, health, the environment and industry,” she told PassBlue.
As part of the project, IAEA scientists also offer training courses on how to use the Covid-19 tests at its labs in Seibersdorf. However, the course originally scheduled to start in March was postponed due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. The IAEA told PassBlue that its scientists are instead providing technical advice to countries remotely and developing online information materials. On-site courses will resume once travel and other coronavirus-related restrictions are lifted.
The agency has so far received requests for assistance from 119 countries. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, Iran, Latvia, Lebanon, Malaysia, Nigeria, Peru, Senegal, Thailand and Togo are among the first to receive the detection equipment.
Many of the developing and conflict-affected countries do not have the resources to buy expensive testing equipment on the free market. Health experts also warn that coronavirus outbreaks in poor and fragile states could lead to as many as 3.2 million deaths. Receiving free testing equipment is therefore important for them as it helps them diagnose, isolate and hospitalize infected people as soon as possible.