How is COVID-19 affecting UK biobanking?
During these exceptional times, research into diagnostics and treatments for COVID-19 is a global priority. To advance this research, there is demand from researchers to access human tissue samples from COVID-19 patients. Biobanks should be well placed to adapt and enable access to this tissue but with the implications of the coronavirus affecting many institutes that fund and house biobanks, resources in many areas are limited.
In mid-March, the UKCRC Tissue Directory and Coordination Centre (TDCC) contacted all 220 UK biobanks registered on the UKCRC Tissue Directory. These biobanks include a broad range of organisations such as disease-focused tissue banks, collections from clinical trials and large cohort studies. Many biobanks are based within universities, hospitals or charities. Biobanks were asked if they were open and whether they were able to collect or process tissue samples from COVID-19 patients.
Are biobanks open?
Of the 220 biobanks contacted, 133 biobanks responded to the email, with 15 biobanks reporting to be open and functional. A number of functional biobanks are scoping ways to support COVID-19 research, through collection or processing of samples; within their organisation or externally. Other functional biobanks are adapting to continue their usual type of work.
A further 30 biobanks reported a limited capacity to remain open; many operating skeleton staff rotas or asking staff to work from home. Most of these biobanks were unable to collect or process COVID-19 samples. Many biobanks are not collecting any samples during this time, only accepting access requests to existing samples, including provision of serum samples for validating tests. Some biobanks cited not having appropriate lab facilities for infectious disease or trained staff being deployed to other clinical duties.
What is forcing biobank closures?
Eighty seven biobanks have reported closure due to coronavirus. From the information reported by 53 biobanks, we can infer that most biobanks are closed due to decisions made by universities or NHS trusts. Many buildings or sites where labs are based have been closed, with non-essential research suspended. Many biobank staff have been asked to work from home where possible or have been redeployed to clinical work. In some cases, both lab facilities and staff have been allocated for COVID-19 focused research; enabling testing for diagnostics or supporting clinical trials. These are all invaluable contributions to the fight against COVID-19 but it has severely impacted the ability of biobanking infrastructure in the UK to collect and supply samples to researchers.
What can be done?
It is concerning how little resource is available to ensure samples can be utilised to support the full eco-system of research. There is a chronic need for samples to support the development of testing kits and assays. In order to maximise the available resource and samples it's imperative that the research and biobanking communities collaborate.
- If you are involved in clinical trials, the NIHR priority areas or HDR UK priority areas then please get in touch to establish how residual material from those vital studies could have even greater impact.
- If you are actively collecting samples from COVID-19 cases, please let us know.