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

Without samples from patients infected with Covid-19, it would have been impractical to make the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus accessible to the entire scientific community and to develop effective vaccines in record time. Since the start of the pandemic, the research community has constantly requested these samples to conduct experiments in order to understand the various mechanisms the virus uses to trick our immune system.

The custodians of these samples are the biobanks. They are centers capable of collecting, storing and distributing large quantities of human samples for medical research purposes. Faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, biobanks coordinated with the global scientific community, reorganizing their activities to play a fundamental role in the fight against the new pathogen.

“The biobanks were appreciated for the ability of their staff to intensify the collection of biological material” during the pandemic, Zisis Kozlakidis said. He is head of the Laboratory and Biobank Services group at the International Cancer Research Center (IARC) in Lyon and former president of the International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories (ISBER).

Kozlakidis explains that many organizations have been instructed to realign their operations to allow Covid-19 samples, leaving other activities in maintenance mode. To reduce the risk of cross-contamination in the depot, it was no longer possible to take samples that did not focus on Covid-19, hampering progress in other scientific fields, such as cancer. Other facilities were not prepared to manage the risks associated with collecting infected specimens and could not store them.

Challenges of international biobank collaborations

Although the definition of a biobank is diluted by adding the plethora of sample repositories that are part of university hospitals and research centers, it is estimated that several thousand biobanks are supporting the global response to healthcare. health. Biobanks’ pre-existing collaborations with hospitals, academic groups, and manufacturers following recent disruptions have provided an informal but strong starting point. The same is true of the experience of some scientists and clinicians working on epidemics such as Zika, Ebola or avian flu.

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

The lack of harmonization between biobanks has been known for a long time, and was accentuated when the pandemic tested the ability of biobanks to respond to a sudden increase in demand..

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

Despite 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 have started collaborate with university researchers, allowing access to confidential data. And the two main global biobank organizations, ISBER and the European Biobanks and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure (BBMRI-ERIC) joint efforts to create a global catalog of Covid-19 sample collections, providing a platform for exchange with other relevant biobank resources.

“To make biobanks around the world with an accessible Covid collection more visible to researchers seeking access to samples, particularly industry, the biobank repository has been expanded to include and highlight Covid collections. “ said Alison Parry-Jones, Managing Director for Europe, Middle East and Africa at ISBER, and COO at Wales Cancer Bank.

This recording connects all biobanks that offer samples and datasets to help with Covid-19 research for any individual or institute.

In collaboration with ISBER and the European, Middle Eastern and African Society for Biobanks (ESBB), BBMRI-ERIC has constantly exchanged knowledge during the pandemic, helping professionals around the world.[They] quickly organized online meetings to communicate information on the handling of Covid-19 samples by biobanks and biobank staff ”, mentionned Jennifer Byrne, Director of Biobanks at NSW Health Pathology in Australia “These recommendations have reinforced the need to consider each human sample as potentially infectious.”

In addition, ISBER has created a cold supply chain guidance document to handle the ultra-low temperatures required by some Covid-19 vaccines. Another key step to facilitate data sharing was the decision of the European Commission to relax data protection laws around research efforts on Covid-19.

Towards universal data accessibility

The process of collecting Covid-19 samples at a biobank requires many safety measures, including the use of protective equipment, disinfectant, and a triple packaging system. Facilities should be sterilized with ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide in a dry fog. The waste is decontaminated in autoclaves and the floor is cleaned again with sodium hypochlorite after the shift. But an overlooked step in the collection process that is critical to the collection process is to upload the sample data to a virtual platform. This allows researchers around the world to locate them immediately using digital platforms, quickly accessing the data samples.

Virtual biobanks are the way forward to achieve global data accessibility, reducing the need to transport samples for a specific study, reducing costs and reducing the risk of contamination. During the pandemic, virtual initiatives have spread across the planet. One example is the China National GeneBank, which created a virus portal called VirusDIP through strategic cooperation with the Global Influenza Data Sharing Initiative.

However, data heterogeneity has also been a frequent barrier to virtual knowledge sharing about Covid-19. Biobanks around the world follow different methods, which becomes even more complicated with different data protection rules in each country. Due to the lack of common standards, in some cases It was not possible to transfer data samples to virtual biobanks during the pandemic. However, efforts are underway to harmonize much more data across the world.

Lessons for the future

Although many biobanks have a contingency plan in place, experts point out that the majority of these preparations were not sufficient for this level of disruption. They draw from the pandemic Igain experiences to improve their operational and business plans. “A investigation was launched to find out about the challenges faced during the pandemic to determine whether new policies needed to be developed ”, Jones noted.

the investigation revealed some areas that could be improved, including ensuring staff safety, facilitating the recruitment of donors and creating contingency plans specific to a pandemic situation. According to Byrne, virtual communication will be essential to achieve these goals, because “has inevitably changed and can improve many individual biobank activities, such as attending and organizing conferences, participating in research committees, communicating with research clients, educating biobank staff, training and career development.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also created new opportunities for biobanks, as the importance of medical research has come to the fore in the public sphere. Biobanks are now better connected with the rest of the health players, creation stronger networks to face future global crises. ButThe availability of biobanks is not necessarily guaranteed in the future. Before the pandemic, many biobanks had limited resources to maintain their infrastructure, equipment and staff. Currently available public funds could decrease dramatically once the pandemic is brought under control, which could force biobanks to seek other sources of funding.

In the future, biobanks will play a vital role in many medical fields, including data-driven medicine and precision medicine. The demand for biobanks is likely to grow. We are seeing more and more collaborations of multidisciplinary biobanks that store several types of samples and data. For example, samples from biobanks are used to feed large databases in various fields, including genomicss, proteomicss, rare diseases, and stem cell therapies.

Hopefully the vital role biobanks have played in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic will underscore their irreplaceable position as a key infrastructure for healthcare. This will help ensure the much-needed long-term support from governments and investors needed to tackle global challenges.

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