WHO Proposes Swiss-Based Global Repository For Sharing Biological Samples Related To Disease Outbreak Threats 
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks at the World Health Assembly’s closing session on Friday, 13 November.

BREAKING – World Health Organization Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has proposed the creation of a Swiss-based global repository for sharing pathogen materials and clinical samples related to potential outbreak threats – allowing for the more rapid development of medical interventions. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the urgent need for this kind of system, said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in his closing remarks to the 73th World Health Assembly.  He alluded to the problems associated with existing WHO-sponsored frameworks for pathogen-sharing, which are based on bilateral agreements between countries, and have no centralized repository. 

“The pandemic has also shown that there is an urgent need for a globally agreed system for sharing pathological materials and clinical samples to facilitate the rapid development of medical countermeasures as global public goods. 

“It can’t be based on bilateral agreements. And it can’t take years to negotiate. 

“We are proposing a new approach that would include a repository for materials housed by WHO in secure Swiss facility; an agreement that sharing these materials in the facility is voluntary; that WHO can facilitate the transfer and use of materials; and a set of criteria under which WHO will distribute them.”

Dr Tedros said that Alain Berset, head of the Swiss Federal Office of Home Affairs [Public Health] had offered his support for the initiative, including a high-security  BSL certified laboratory (biosecurity level 4). The Health Minister of Thailand, Anutin Charnvirakul, and Italy’s Minister of Health, Roberto Speranza, have also come behind the concept, Dr Tedros said. 

Sharing of Samples is Critical to Rapid Response  – But Slow Under Current Arrangements 

Sharing of such biological samples is crucial for the rapid response to an emerging outbreak threat, leading to the faster development of diagnostic tools, medicines and eventually, vaccines. 

Current WHO-mediated arrangements are guided by bilateral Material Transfer Agreements (MTAs), a contract governing transfer of biological materials – that is relevant samples and data– between two countries or parties (e.g. laboratories).  The MTA also defines the rights of the provider and the recipient with respect to the materials and any derivatives.

The current WHO MTA formulas are part of the Organization’s broader Research and Development (R&D) Blueprint for Action to Prevent Epidemics blueprint.

WHO developed and published its first such R&D blueprint framework 2016, which was approved that year by the WHA, following the harsh experiences of the West African Ebola epidemic where a lack of such formalized frameworks hindered response. The Blueprint was updated  again in 2017, following another expert public consultation.

This Framework was scrutinized again as the COVID-19 pandemic was building steam – when WHO convened a major research meeting in Geneva in February 2020. 

The WHO-convened Global Research and Innovation Forum with scientists, researchers and public health experts followed on the heels of WHO’s initial declaration of  COVID-19 as a public health emergency at the end of January, 2020. 

The meeting, 11-12 February, yielded the first COVID-focused research and development blueprint to accelerate global research work on treatments and vaccines, which is part of the WHO’s broader global strategy and preparedness plan

At this meeting, the expert participants issued a set of recommendations for “immediate research actions”, saying that virus material, clinical samples and associated data should be “rapidly shared for immediate public health purposes, and that fair and equitable access to any medical products or innovations that are developed using the materials must be part of such sharing.”

Sources in Geneva told Health Policy Watch that while the Swiss Confederation has indeed agreed, in principle, to host such a repository – a more formal framework for the initiative still needs to be developed. If successful, however, such a facility could make a meaningful contribution to global health security, providing an important base for more rapid, initial investigation of emerging disease threats on neutral ground. Indeed, the concept dovetails well with the classic Swiss diplomatic positioning as a “trusted” and “neutral” partner – in the polarized world of global health diplomacy.

Image Credits: Health Policy Watch .

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