Pilot Biohub Facility at Spiez Enables Fast Sharing of SARS-CoV2 Variants
A microbiologist extracts COVID-19 from a sample at the Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories.

The World Health Organization (WHO)’s first pilot biohub facility in Spiez, Switzerland, has been able to provide laboratories around the world with biological materials with epidemic or pandemic potential in under nine days, according to a consultative meeting convened last week.

The Spiez Biohub was set up according to an agreement between Switzerland and the WHO in May 2021 to serve as a centre for the safe receipt, sequencing, storage and preparation of biological materials for distribution to other laboratories as part of global pandemic preparedness.

It is the first of a number of biohubs that the WHO intends to set up as part of a biohub system to encourage the speedy sharing of pathogens  with epidemic or pandemic potential to characterise these and provide an informed review of the risk under the International Health Regulations.

So far, Luxembourg, South Africa, and the UK have voluntarily shared different variants of the SARS-COV-2 strain with the Spiez BioHub facility, while Italy, Japan, Peru, Switzerland, Thailand, Egypt, El Salvador and Portugal have also participated in the pilot. Luxembourg was the first country in February to contribute virus samples of SARS-COV-2 to the Spiez BioHub. 

What happens at Spiez? 

The facility in Spiez was built to amplify the rapid sharing of viruses and other pathogens between laboratories and partners globally in order to better be prepared for fast and collaborative efforts against future outbreaks and to aid the public health systems in battling the pandemic. 

As per the timeline of the South Africa Omicron shipment in late-November 2021, the WHO said it took 8.75 days for the BioHub facility to procure the shipment of materials from South Africa.

WHO was notified by South Africa on 29 November that it wished to send a shipment of the material to the BioHub. The two parties then signed a Standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA) on 4 December, and the courier of the specimen in question was shipped on 8 December. It took one working day for the specimen to arrive at Spiez. 

After arriving at Spiez, the specimens are studied, and their genetic sequence data is shared with other agencies and stakeholders which includes legal experts and civil society.

The BioHub also provides technical consultations with relevant stakeholders on issues of intellectual property rights as well as the benefits arising from sharing of the BMEPP. 

The BioHub system is intended to replace the current bilateral state of genome surveillance data sharing with a facility that will enable Member States to share biological materials with and via the BioHub under pre-agreed conditions. These conditions include biosafety, biosecurity, and other applicable regulations along with timeliness and predictability in response activities.

Image Credits: Flickr: Governor Tom Wolf.

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