The production of radioisotopes used in medicine has continued during the Covid-19 pandemic. But hospitals could face shortages due to bottlenecks in transport and distribution, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said this week.

The issues were highlighted following an IAEA survey of research reactors that produce radioisotopes.

"The survey conducted by the IAEA shows that most major actors continue to produce radioisotopes, as the production facilities have been defined as essential by the relevant governments," said Ram Sharma, acting head of the research reactor operation and maintenance section at the IAEA.

"Most research reactors whose production of radioisotopes is vital for health care to continue to operate, in line with the relevant IAEA Safety Standards, after having introduced measures to prevent the effects and spread of coronavirus," said Amgad Shokr, head of the research reactor safety section at the IAEA.

But at the same time, due to the pandemic, many airlines are no longer operating, and borders are closed, which affects the global distribution of medical radioisotopes.

"The IAEA is working to assess the present need of medical radioisotopes, as most research and education activities using isotopes have been put on hold, and many hospitals have delayed diagnosis applications," IAEA said.

A webinar is planned with stakeholders from around the globe on 23 April to help define needs, share best practices of operations and identify means to ease the bottlenecks.

South Africa reduces radioisotope production

South African government announced a national lockdown as of 27 March 2020 to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Medical radioisotopes are classified as essential products and, as such, research reactor SAFARI-1 and NTP Radioisotopes continue operations to produce them.

Both sites implemented operational restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19. But despite these measures, production is below capacity, due to challenges in the cross-border distribution of the radioisotopes. Some production batches had to be cancelled due to the cancellations of flights. If further cancellations occur, SAFARI-1 may consider scaling down the operation of the reactor and may even consider a temporary shutdown.

"We would need help to assist the isotope distribution chain around the world to get the product to users worldwide," said Koos du Bruyn, Senior Manager of the SAFARI-1 Research Reactor at the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA).

While some countries and companies are organising charter flights for the delivery of radiopharmaceuticals, not all governments can afford that, Osso Junior, head of the Radioisotope Products & Radiation Technology Section at the IAEA said.

Photo: A researcher at Indonesia’s National Nuclear Agency (BATAN) is using a hot cell to prepare a radiopharmaceutical. (Photo: M. Gaspar/IAEA)