What can Biobanks Learn From the Current Pandemic?

More than a year ago, something happened that most of us could hardly imagine. A virus took the whole world more or less firmly in its grip. Pandemic, previously a word that very few of us knew, has now become common knowledge. The effects of the pandemic are far from over, but after one year it is possible to look back and draw a few lessons.

Most impressive was the speed with which not one, but a whole range of different vaccines were researched, developed, registered, and launched worldwide. Prior to COVID-19, it was not uncommon for the research and development process of a vaccine to take up to 10 years. Admittedly, not everything had to be developed from scratch. After all, there had already been basic research on coronaviruses for many years.

The core competence of biobanking, i.e., collecting samples and data of clearly defined quality, processing, if necessary storing, and making them available to researchers, was tremendously important even in the initial phase, when the disease did not even have a name. It was then possible to isolate the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, in the bronchoalveolar lavage fluid of patients with pneumonia of unknown origin. In a very short time, the genome of the new coronavirus was decoded and made publicly available to the scientific community. Needless to say, the quality of the samples used for this purpose was very important.

All these important results were successfully achieved with a relatively small number of samples. What followed was not only a quantum leap in terms of number of samples and data. It was also about bringing together completely different cultures that had not necessarily worked together very successfully in the past. On the one hand, the (academic) biobanks, on the other hand the research departments of the biopharmaceutical industry.

To make matters worse, only the very fewest biobanks in the world had experience of how to handle highly pathogenic viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. But here too – and this became a hallmark of this pandemic – different organizations, institutions and expert groups had published guidelines and recommendations very quickly and thus still in time, that were very helpful to the biobanks. In addition, a very large number of scientific publications on “COVID-19 / SARS-CoV-2 AND biobanks / biorepository” were published very quickly (as of today close to 500 articles), providing further valuable information for biobankers.

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Thus, the demand for samples and data increased exponentially. Insufficient quality of samples and data would have led to unacceptable quality problems and thus delays in SARS-CoV-2 research. This had to be avoided whenever possible. At the same time, the biobanks had to fight for the limited resources – finances, infrastructure / equipment, and personnel – at least in the initial phase.

Due to the strong demand for suitable samples and data new biobanks focused only on COVID-19 were established. Financial resources were not a major issue for these biobanks, as the initial phase was secured. Much more difficult was to procure the required infrastructure. The manufacturers could not produce or deliver the equipment as quickly, partly because the worldwide trade was drastically restricted due to COVID-19. Finding competent personnel was another challenge. And even when everything was available, it took time to install the equipment, train staff, ramp up activity, and at the same time not to neglect the quality.

On the other hand, existing biobanks changed their focus and began collecting samples and data for COVID-19 research. These biobanks faced similar issues as the newly established COVID-19 biobanks. Since the staff was already in place, this aspect was not as much of a problem. However, not all staff were willing to continue working in the biobank under the changed conditions.

Still other biobanks had to reduce their previous activities because hardly any more patients were hospitalized and therefore activities were scaled down to the absolute minimum. Staff from biobanks with reduced activity were deployed to other areas of the health care system where possible.

In summary, biobanks had played a central role in the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. A few questions arise for the future. For example, how or which biobanks can survive long-term in the post COVID-19 phase and under what conditions? Or can the successful collaboration between academia and industry be replicated in other areas? It has been shown that flexible biobanks can also cope with such a crisis. But for this, the biobank needed a professional structure.

Dr. Simeon-Dubach is the owner of medservice, biobanking consulting & service in Walchwil, Switzerland. He has been working in the biobanking field for over 15 years, focused on business development/planning, governance, standards/best practices and sustainability of biobanks, and collaboration between science and biomedical industries. He has published more than 30 peer-reviewed articles on these topics. He coaches biobankers to realize the full potential of a biobank and to be sustainable. He chairs the ISBER Standards Committee, which oversees updates to ISBER best practices and develops tools to improve and standardize modern biobanking. He is also the section editor for Biobanking Management in the journal “Biopreservation and Biobanking” and member of the editorial board of the journal “Synergy”.