By: Aly Diana

A biobank is a biorepository that accepts, processes, stores, and distributes biospecimens and associated data for use in research and clinical care. The field of biobanking has changed tremendously over the past thirty years. It started with small, predominantly university-based repositories developed for the research needs of specific projects. They gradually evolved into institutional and government-supported repositories, commercial (for profit) biorepositories, population-based biobanks, and most recently, virtual biobanks. Time magazine featured biobanks in “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now” in 2009, highlighting biobanks as an opportunity for scientists and alike to de-rive knowledge from thousands of samples. The data associated with stored biospecimens have increased in complexity from basics, such as date of collection and the diagnosis, to extensive information sets encompassing many aspects of the participant or patient phenotype, now rapidly extending into genetic, proteomic, and other “omics” information.


Human specimens have been collected and stored at institutions in the United States and elsewhere for over 100 years. One of the earliest examples of a disease-centric biobank is the University of California, San Francisco, AIDS Specimen Bank (ASB). The ASB started in December 1982 in response to the early challenges of the AIDS epidemic, without knowledge of the causative agent for AIDS. A most recent example relevant to the current condition is the development of biobanks to understand more about COVID-19, with the UK Biobank as one of the leading institutions. UK Biobank has taken swift strides to help tackle the global pandemic by undertaking five major initiatives – the serology study, COVID-19 repeat imaging study, coronavirus self-test antibody study, coronavirus infection study, and health data linkage. The 20,000 volunteers, a combination of existing UK Biobank participants and their children and grandchildren aged over 18, have helped produce findings that represent the UK population.

One of the study’s most significant findings so far is that 99% of participants who had tested positive for previous infection retained antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 for three months after being infected, and 88% did so for the first six months of the study. This discovery provides an early indication that the antibodies produced following natural infection may protect most people against subsequent infection for at least six months. Other studies have looked into risk factors for COVID-19 -related morbidity and mortality. Alongside demographic covariates, being a healthcare worker, current smoker, having cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, autoimmune disease, and oral steroid use at enrolment were independently associated with COVID-19 mortality. These results suggest that previously reported associations of COVID-19 mortality with body mass index, low vitamin D, air pollutants, and renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system inhibitors may be explained by the aforementioned factors. In addition, prior acute kidney failure, urinary tract infection, pneumonia, neurogenerative disease, history of smoking, and high consumption of processed meat have also increased COVID-19 incident/morbidity/mortality.

Above are only a few examples of important results from studies using biobanking samples/data. However, maintaining biobanking in the COVID-19 era is not an easy task. A survey performed by a Task Force organized by members of the International Society for Biological and Environmental Repositories (ISBER) Stand-ards Advisory Committee identified a wide range of challenges for biobanks globally, including those related to COVID-19 handling, operations, infrastructure support/ resources, business/communications, ethical, legal, and social issue, research progress, and personnel well-being. Many biobanks were unprepared for the full force and effects of the pandemic. Although many biobanks had prepared an emergency preparedness plan, it is clear that the majority of these plans were insufficient for responding to a pandemic with such profound and long-lasting effects. The development and continual revision of such a biobank emergency preparedness plan, to include long-term shutdowns due to pandemics or other causes, can better position biobanks to address this problem. Advanced planning, risk awareness, preparedness, mitigation, and crisis management for response and recovery are essential in formulating emergency management strategies. The challenges, gaps, and proposed solutions brought forward here may be helpful in better preparing the biobanking community for future emergencies, thereby underpinning the viability and sustainability of biobanks.


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