Biobanking in a pandemic: Lessons learned

The central tenets of biobanking are as follows:

  • Data/sample collection
  • Processing
  • Storage
  • Providing access for researchers

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, these have all proven indispensable.

Biobanks were leveraged for the storage of bronchoalveolar lavage fluids from patients with the as-yet unknown strain of viral pneumonia even before the virus was adequately characterized and defined as a coronavirus with a similar morphology to SARS and MERS.

Researchers around the world accelerated their efforts to decode the genome of the novel coronavirus and to make data available to the global scientific community.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of a small group of researchers, many of them in the UK,  and the availability of a limited number of high quality specimens, the viral genome was sequenced quickly and the virus was characterized as SARS-CoV-2.

Soon after, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak a pandemic. The lessons learned can be reflected upon over a year later, including the importance of effective sample handling and biobanking in any future pandemic.

Effective sample handling                                    

The quick sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 was achieved by utilizing a relatively restricted quantity of samples, and so, only characterized a small subset of the viral strains in circulation.

The traceability and quality of samples was crucial, and though sample quality should already be a hallmark of biobanks, COVID-19 research would have been significantly hindered with potentially fatal consequences without having that principle ingrained in the sample handling workflow.

Challenges in biobanking capabilities

The size of the pandemic presented a unique challenge to biobanking in that vast quantities of sample material were anticipated after the initial outbreak phase. As a result, biopharmaceutical and academic biobanks alike were inundated with samples involved in the development of new diagnostic test kits and potential vaccines, with as many as 2 million confirmed cases globally by mid-April.

Not many biobanks were experienced in the handling of highly pathogenic viruses and this was a hurdle to the success of these initiatives as they often lacked the necessary containment. The receiving biobanks will be much better positioned to deal with samples emanating from a potential pandemic virus in future.

International transparency and cooperation were key to overcoming these obstacles, with the International Atomic Energy Authority in Vienna (on behalf of the United Nations), the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, USA, and Public Health England at Colindale, UK, quickly publishing guidelines for handling and testing COVID-19 samples.

Scientific publications were fast to disseminate articles relating to SARS-CoV-2 and biobanking, putting extremely valuable information in the hands of bio bankers.

What does the future hold for biobanking?

As many clinical efforts have come to a halt while the scientific community rallies to defeat COVID-19, some biobanks have been forced to reduce existing activities. One key question that remains is once the overwhelming demand for SARS-CoV-2 samples eventually reduces, which biobanks will return to pre-COVID levels of activity?

Many commentators think that in the next 10 years it is inevitable that another viral pandemic will arise and biobanks will be much better prepared to cope with the bio-sampling necessary to support the development of new treatments and vaccines in that situation.

Access to the genomes of many individuals from different races, geographies, and socio-economic backgrounds will enable scientists to fully understand the impact of future viral diseases on closely targeted segments of the population much faster than before.

The spread of the disease can be tracked more efficiently by making this data available to epidemiologists more precisely and quickly, to control it more effectively. The role of biobanks will be key to success in this.

About Ziath LtdZiath Logo

Ziath specializes in instrumentation control and information management in both the academic and the pharmaceutical/biotech industry sectors with a focus on the application of laboratory automation. In particular, we focus on managing large sample libraries (compound management, biobanking and sample management) using 2D datamatrix tubes.

Founded in 2005 by scientists and engineers; Ziath is over a decade old and is proud to server customers across the world. Ziath develops innovative new products designed to simplify processes in life science organizations. In addition Ziath offers consulting and contracting work to clients.

Ziath has a range of products split into four main categories of 2D barcode scanners, devices for handling tubes, 2D barcoded tubes and sample management software.


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Last updated: Jun 17, 2021 at 6:59 AM

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