Biobanks and the Next Pandemic
America needs to attack the next pandemic before it infects and
kills millions of people.
Biobanks are repositories of biological specimens and health
Biobanks will help prevent or attenuate the impact of future
Analysis and statistical modeling of biobank data can predict who
- is likely to not become infected
- will become mildly ill
may require hospitalization or intensive care unit admission
A well-designed biobank will provide leading indicators. Metrics
like pandemic fatality rates can be calculated on specific
Biobanks let researchers discover what pre-existing health
conditions or environmental factors make some people more
vulnerable. With corresponding diagnostics and therapies for these
populations, researchers can optimize for the highest quantifiable
impact on the health of many.
The term “biobank” is used for a variety of repositories. Many banks
have a small number of doctor-collected biological
specimens—say during a cancerous tumor treatment.
The tissue is stored in the physician researcher's freezer. Usually
it's a single sample from the patient. Sometimes blood is also
Often there's limited patient previous history. And little or no
follow-up collection of tissue, blood, or health information kept in
an organized, retrievable manner. And the info isn't shared with
other researchers or the broader community through manuscripts or at
A Better Design
A well-designed biobank can change the pandemic game. This should be
set up to collect biological samples and corresponding personal,
community, and public health data on the participants who
We should also create biobanks that are set up for future research
without a specific hypothesis in mind. Because, future uses and
applications mayn't be obvious at the inception stage.
This way, qualified researchers can use this to ask critical
questions—like how to attack a pandemic before it spreads like
the California wildfires.
The salient characteristics are:
Biological samples, such as blood, urine, stool, and/or biopsied
tissue are collected from the same individual over the course of
time. Ergo, there's a longitudinal record of the individual. And
the changes that occur in that person over time.
The biological samples are processed and stored in a consistent
and rigorous way. Multiple biological molecules, not just DNA, but
also RNA, proteins, lipids, metabolites, and small molecules are
preserved. And not degraded.
Detailed personal health information is collected through surveys
and electronic health records. In the past, research excluded
minority groups, different socioeconomic classes, and
harder-to-reach rural populations. Any conclusions drawn from just
a middle class Caucasian population will be of limited value for
future research and discovery.
Environmental information is collected to know whether
participants have been exposed to pollution from wildfires,
extreme temperature events, or other environmental phenomena.
A large number of participants are enrolled so that statistics can
be performed on any findings. The UK Biobank consists of 500,000
people in Great Britain.
The NIH-sponsored, All of Us Biobank aims to enroll one million.
The large sample size will help researchers pinpoint the causes of
diseases—both common and rare.
The Colorado Longitudinal Study focuses by recruiting only from
the state of Colorado. Now, researchers can study neighborhood
health in addition to community and public health. Neighborhood
environments shape residents' physical and mental health.
Even sub-optimal biobanks have been useful:
Genetic analysis of the UK Biobank participants revealed links
between insulin resistance and coronary artery disease.
The Framingham Heart Study is one of the longest, most important
epidemiological studies in medical history. In the 1960s, the
study showed cigarette smoking's role in the heart disease
development. And helped fuel the era's anti-smoking campaigns. And
the seminal research defining cardiovascular disease risk (CVD)
factors. This shaped public CVD prevention guidelines.
George Washington University is setting up a COVID-19 specimen
bank to accelerate research. They will collect samples from COVID
positive patients from day 1-11 and then at 10 weeks, 6 months,
and one year later.