The Hidden Role of Biobanks in Covid-19 Research

12/07/2021 - 7 minutes

Biobanks have played a key role in the fight against Covid-19 by allowing researchers to access the samples they needed to study the disease and develop vaccines and treatments. While the pandemic presented a big challenge to the often underfunded biobanks, it also provided an opportunity for growth in many other areas of research going forward.

Without samples from patients infected with Covid-19, it would have been unachievable to make the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus genome accessible to the entire scientific community and develop effective vaccines in record times. Since the start of the pandemic, the research community has been consistently requesting these samples to conduct experiments to understand the diverse mechanisms that the virus uses to trick our immune systems. 

The guardians of these samples are biobanks. These are centers that are able to collect, store and distribute large amounts of human samples for medical research purposes. In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, biobanks coordinated with the global scientific community, reorganizing their activities to perform a fundamental role in the battle against the new pathogen. 

“Biobanks were appreciated for their staff’s ability to scale up the collection of biological material” during the pandemic, said Zisis Kozlakidis. He’s the Head of the Laboratory Services and Biobank Group at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon and previous President of the International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories (ISBER).

Kozlakidis explains that many organizations were instructed to realign their operations to allow Covid-19 samples, leaving other activities in maintenance mode. To decrease the chance of cross-contamination in the repository, it was no longer possible to collect samples that did not focus on Covid-19, hindering the progress of other scientific fields, such as cancer. Other facilities were not prepared to handle the risks of collecting infected samples and could not store them. 

Challenges to international biobank collaborations 

Although a definition of a biobank dilutes if we add the plethora of sample repositories that are part of academic hospitals and research centers, it is estimated that several thousands of biobanks are supporting the global healthcare response. Pre-existing collaborations of biobanks with hospitals, academic groups and manufacturers from recent disruptions provided an informal but solid starting point. So did the experience of some scientists and clinicians working on epidemics such as Zika, Ebola or the avian flu. 

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While the storage of biological samples for research has grown over the past decades, not all centers and facilities have followed a set of common rules regarding sample collection. This can generate a lot of variability in terms of sample quality. 

The lack of harmonization among biobanks has long been known, and was accentuated when the pandemic tested the capacity of biobanks to respond to a sudden increase in demand

One of the main obstacles concerned sharing highly infectious samples across international borders. In many cases, the different practices regarding collection, storage and consent requirements was an insurmountable barrier for cross-border access. 

In spite of these difficulties, public health institutions were able to establish policies and guidelines for biobanks to facilitate data sharing during the pandemic. Large pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies started collaborating with academic researchers, allowing access to confidential data. And the two leading global organizations in biobanking, the ISBER and the European Biobanking and BioMolecular Resources Research Infrastructure (BBMRI-ERIC) joined efforts to create a global catalogue of Covid-19 sample collections, providing a platform of exchange with other relevant biobanking resources.

“To make biobanks around the world with accessible Covid collection more visible to researchers looking to access samples, especially industry, the biobank directory was expanded to include and highlight Covid collections,” said Alison Parry-Jones, Director-at-Large for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at ISBER, and Operations Director at the Wales Cancer Bank.

This registry connects all biobanks that are offering samples and datasets to assist with Covid-19 research for any individual or institute.         

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Together with ISBER and the European, Middle Eastern and African Society for Biobanking (ESBB), the BBMRI-ERIC has been exchanging knowledge constantly during the pandemic, helping professionals across the world.“[They] rapidly convened online meetings to communicate information about Covid-19 sample handling by biobanks and biobank staff,” said Jennifer Byrne, Director of Biobanking at NSW Health Pathology in Australia “These recommendations reinforced the need to consider every human sample as being potentially infectious”. 

In addition, the ISBER created a cold chain supply guidance document for handling the ultra-low temperatures required by certain Covid-19 vaccines. Another key step to facilitate data sharing was the decision by the European Commission to loosen data protection laws around Covid-19 research efforts. 

Towards universal data accessibility

The process of collecting Covid-19 samples in a biobank requires numerous safety measures, including the use of protective equipment, disinfectant, and a triple packaging system. The facilities have to be sterilized with ultraviolet light and dry mist hydrogen peroxide. The waste is decontaminated in autoclaves and the floor is cleaned again with sodium hypochlorite after the shift. But an overlooked step to the collection process that is essential to the collection process consists of uploading the sample data to a virtual platform. This allows researchers across the globe to locate them immediately using digital platforms, quickly accessing the sample data.

Virtual biobanks are the path to achieve global data accessibility, reducing the need for sample transportation for a specific study, saving costs and reducing contamination risks. During the pandemic, virtual initiatives have spread across the planet. An example is the China National GeneBank, which established a virus portal called VirusDIP through a strategic cooperation with the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data.

However, data heterogeneity has also been a frequent impediment for virtually sharing knowledge about Covid-19. Biobanks across the globe follow different methods, which becomes even more convoluted with different data protection rules in each country. Because of these missing common standards, in some cases it was not possible to transfer sample data to virtual biobanks during the pandemic. However, efforts are ongoing to harmonize much more data across the globe.

Lessons for the future

Although many biobanks had an emergency plan in place, experts point out that the majority of these preparations were not enough for this level of disruption. They take from the pandemic learning experiences to improve their operational and business plans. “A survey was launched to uncover the challenges faced during the pandemic to ascertain whether new policies had to be developed,” noted Jones.                

The survey revealed certain areas that could be improved, including ensuring staff safety, facilitating donor recruitment and creating emergency plans specific to a pandemic situation. According to Byrne, virtual communication will be essential to achieve these goals, as it“has inevitably changed and can improve many individual biobanking activities, such as conference participation and organization, research committee participation, communication with research clients, biobank staff education, training, and career development.” 

The Covid-19 pandemic has created new opportunities for biobanks too, as the importance of medical research has been put at the forefront of the public sphere. Biobanks are now better connected with the rest of healthcare players, creating stronger networks to address future global crises. But the availability of biobanks is not necessarily ensured in the future. Before the pandemic, many biobanks had limited resources to maintain their infrastructure, equipment, and personnel. Currently available public funds may dramatically decrease once the pandemic is under control, which may force biobanks to look for alternative sources of financing.

Going forward, biobanks will play an essential role in multiple medical areas, including data-driven and precision medicine. The demand for biobanking is likely to grow. We are seeing more multidisciplinary biobanking collaborations that store multiple types of samples and data. For example, biobank samples are being used to feed large databases in a variety of fields including genomics, proteomics, rare diseases, and stem cell therapies.

Hopefully, the essential role that biobanks have played in fighting against the Covid-19 pandemic will highlight their irreplaceable position as a key infrastructure for healthcare. This will help secure the indispensable long-term support from governments and investors that is required to tackle worldwide challenges. 

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