November 12, 2020
COVID-19, the severe respiratory disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, has swept over the globe infecting more than 47 million people and causing more than 1 million deaths. The large numbers of COVID-19 patients, as well as the lockdowns used by many governments to control the spread of the virus, have drastically impacted both healthcare and biobanking operations in many countries.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted gaps within national healthcare systems, such as hospital bed capacity, healthcare staffing, and procedures to protect healthcare workers from infectious respiratory diseases. Hospitals have had to reserve more space for COVID-19 patients and delay elective surgeries and other procedures, including cancer treatments. Moreover, travel restrictions have impacted access to healthcare and many people are staying away from hospitals and clinics due to fear of contracting COVID-19. Healthcare providers also face shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) and key supplies due to national and regional lockdowns. On the flip side, this pandemic has increased public awareness of the importance of biomedical research and biobanking.
Patient testing and contact-tracing have been the cornerstone of COVID-19 management in many countries. This has placed clinical diagnostic labs and COVID-19 biobanks at the forefront of the battle to overcome COVID-19.
Difficulty in accessing biological samples can be a major roadblock preventing COVID-19 research and trials. Biobanks function as repositories of high-quality samples and therefore, provide key support to biomedical researchers conducting clinical trials on new vaccines and therapeutics to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Many biobanks, including the UK Biobank, the National Institute of Health’sAll of US Research Program in the United States, and the China Kadoorie Biobank, are leading population-level COVID-19 specimen collection efforts to facilitate the large-scale research needed to treat and prevent this devastating disease. Furthermore, large collaborations such as the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, the BBMRI-ERIC, and ISBER Registry of Biobanks provide biomedical researchers with COVID-19 resources and biological samples.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of biobanks, it has also caused significant disruption to biobanking operations. Since COVID-19 patients can be asymptomatic, any human sample could potentially contain the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and thus pose a significant health risk to biobank staff and a contamination risk to other samples within the biobank. Biobanks unaccustomed to handling infectious material have had to adapt their sample collection and handling protocols by conducting institution-wide training. The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published guidelines to help biobanks manage samples that may contain SARS-CoV-2.
Other major challenges come from the nation-wide lockdowns or travel restrictions imposed by many countries to curb the spread of COVID-19. This has compromised supply chains and made it difficult for biobanks to maintain critical supplies such as LN2 (Liquid Nitrogen), organize repair of equipment, and order new equipment. Travel restrictions and a requirement to work from home have also meant that some biobanks have had to cut back on services while staff monitor sample storage conditions remotely and with regular on-site inspections. This has compromised revenue for several biobanks, compounding funding issues.
The move to working remotely has also caused challenges with data management and data security. During lockdowns and travel restrictions, biobank teams must communicate and share information using secure online platforms and yet still keep all protected health information (PHI) secure.
Biobanks around the world report that the challenges of operating in the COVID-19 pandemic have allowed them to reassess their risk management and emergency plans and to adapt their procedures, protocols, training, and staffing to meet new demands. Biobanks have also readily shared information to learn new strategies for coping with COVID-19 disruptions.
For example, a laboratory in the China National Genebank switched from biobanking activities to functioning as a diagnostic lab to increase the country’s capacity for COVID-19 testing. They also changed staff rostering to include shift work so that staff could receive and process patient samples at night as well as during the day.
Those biobanks not designed for infectious samples have had to rapidly change protocols and infrastructure to comply with guidelines on handling COVID-19 specimens, such as using Class II Biological Safety Cabinets and regularly disinfecting all surfaces. COVID-19 biobanks also need to apply for ethics approval to handle and store infectious materials.
Risk management responses have included social distancing of staff, more hand-washing or use of hand sanitizers having at least 70% alcohol content, mandatory PPE such as face masks or shields, eye protection, double gloving, and gowns. Biobanks have also had to adapt sample transport, waste management, and sample disposal protocols to ensure the SARS-CoV-2 virus does not contaminate the environment.
To deal with supply issues, biobanks have found extra suppliers, created backup stocks, and used backup generators to ensure uninterrupted electricity supply.
Solutions to data management and security problems include using firewalls, two-factor authentication and HIPAA-compliant data management tools such as a COVID LIMS.
Biobanks are facing unprecedented disruptions and challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have adapted their processes to ensure staff safety and minimize the risk of contamination. HIPAA-compliant COVID-19 LIMS can help biobanks efficiently manage data and samples, maintain data security, monitor updates to protocols and procedures, document staff safety training, schedule equipment calibration, and manage maintenance data with ease.