The BioHub network aims to promote the exchange of pathogens for research

L.Last month, the World Health Organization announced that it had signed a letter of intent with the Swiss government to set up the first facility of its BioHub network in a laboratory in Spiez, Switzerland. The BioHub initiative aims to facilitate the exchange of pathogen samples between laboratories around the world for research. During its pilot phase, it will only share SARS-CoV-2 variants, but the WHO plans to expand to other pathogens next year.

Sylvie Briand

World Health Organization

Sylvie Briand, WHO director for Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness, says BioHub aims to overcome some of the timely sample exchange challenges associated with the adoption of the Nagoya Protocol, an international agreement designed to ensure that the Benefits from genetic resources are shared fairly. The scientist spoke to Briand about how the BioHub will work.

The scientist: Can you tell me a little more about the Nagoya Protocol and which of its provisions could have been a problem in terms of delaying the exchange?

Sylvie Briand: Some countries, especially countries with tremendous biodiversity, wanted to protect their own resources and ensure that they can be fairly shared when exporting those resources. . . . For example, someone goes to the rainforest in Brazil and takes a special plant with them, [and] bring it back. And then, from this plant, developed a new cream for the skin or something and benefit with this product. The initial resources will come from Brazil, but Brazil will not benefit from them. . . . The aim of the Nagoya Protocol was an agreement on the transfer of materials for these biological resources, thereby. . . When another country uses these resources, it also undertakes to share benefits in some way.

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The question is, why should this be true for viruses? . . . When we had avian flu, H5N1 showed up. . . H5N1 was mainly found in some countries in Southeast Asia. . . . And some countries said, “Why should we share the virus, because if we share the virus, some countries will start producing the vaccine. And if there’s a pandemic, we have to buy the vaccine. ‘ . . . For this reason, in the health sector, they began to discuss the PIP framework, the framework for preparing for a pandemic flu, where. . . For flu, we have a network of laboratories that constantly exchange their viruses. There are [a] Special agreement for pandemic situations in which the laboratories on the network continue to share their viruses because we need to know the virus in order to make the vaccine. But once the vaccines are produced, the manufacturers have an agreement with them [the] WHO where they commit to either share [in] a percentage of their production in real time, a technology transfer or a tiered price.

The PIP framework was adopted before the Nagoya Protocol. . . [and] We’re still trying to figure out what the links between PIP and the Nagoya Protocol might be. But it is likely to be recognized by member states as a special international agreement under the Nagoya Protocol. But for the coming agreement we have to join the Nagoya Protocol. So we have to find [a] Mechanism that enables a quick exchange of material, but at the same time anticipates how we can also ensure fair access to services.

TS: Were there any other drawbacks to the current pathogen exchange system that you wanted to fix with BioHub?

SB: At the moment, the exchange is mostly bilateral: the countries discuss one-on-one and sign agreements on the basis of which they then share biological material. So if you already have a bilateral relationship, it can happen very quickly. If not, then you need the time to discuss the agreement. Depending on the country, it can sometimes take years. So this is a point [that] it’s not very timely.

The other problem that we see [is] that for example, when SARS emerged, it first appeared in China and then spread to Hong Kong, Singapore, and so on. But already in the first week nobody knew which pathogen it was. Some countries said, “It’s a bacterium.” other countries said, “No, no, it’s a metapneumovirus”. . . . What happened is that [the] WHO played a role and said, “Okay, give us the biological material,” and we shared it with many laboratories around the world. So instead of doing research one or two labs at a time, we allowed a full network of labs to all research that specific pathogen at the same time.

For us it is indeed an opportunity. . . Give the sample to a number of high level laboratories around the world very quickly and get a quick understanding of the cause of the disease.

TS: Can you tell me a little more about how the BioHub will work?

SB: There will be an agreement between the laboratories and the countries. . . Thus, before contacting the BioHub, a country knows what it will or will not sign, what the terms and conditions will be, and this will be predictable and agreed before any transfer. Then for the laboratory that requests the material. . . Any laboratory that wants it can have it, as long as it meets some criteria. And for us the criterion is first and foremost the safety of the laboratory. . . . If it’s a research lab, if they do [a] Publication, they must ensure that the country that made the sample available is known and. . . For example, we need to define the criteria for co-authorship and even if you are planning a research project, we would like you to include researchers from donor countries or other countries, especially developing countries, so that research also has an opportunity to share skills and skills expand.

We have to find [a] Mechanism that enables a quick exchange of material, but at the same time anticipates how we can also ensure fair access to services.

Why we insist is because in previous outbreaks we have seen some scientists go to developing countries, take the material in their suitcase, return, make important publications, and never cite or acknowledge the contribution of the locals. This has created a lot of tension between countries and between research groups and I think it is important not to repeat this. If we can improve this aspect, I think that will be a big step forward.

This is for research, however. . . we are also working on it [an] Agreement with what we call commercial companies – I mean vaccine makers, diagnostics makers, therapeutics, and so on. Because we also want to accelerate the development of countermeasures.

TS: What safety precautions are taken in the BioHub itself so that the pathogens are not accidentally released?

SB: We currently only have one BioHub facility. . . . and it is a BSL-4 laboratory, which is the highest level of security. In the future we really hope to have more BioHub facilities. . . . We also think it is important to work with developing countries. So we’re going to make sure it’s safe, but maybe we can have a lower procedural level depending on the pathogen – for example, it could be level 3 or level 2 depending on the pathogen. . . . Otherwise certain countries will be preferred and certain countries preferred over others. We will still try to maintain some form of equity around the world, but for sure.

TS: Are there any special logistical issues or questions that you would like to clarify in the pilot phase?

SB: There are some logistical issues such as customs and the packing of samples. When it comes to very dangerous pathogens, you need to have three-layer packaging, and not all countries have it. So we’re just trying to see how we can organize the sample shipping. We also need previously agreed contracts with airlines, as they normally do not want to transport dangerous pathogens. We very often have epidemics in certain places that we don’t know the diagnostics, so we don’t know – maybe the sample isn’t dangerous. But if we don’t know, the carriers usually don’t want to carry it. That is why we need advance contracts.

The last point is. . . For countries that have signed the Nagoya Protocol, special customs regulations apply to the shipment of biological material. And so we have to design [a standard material transfer agreement] which takes these rules into account so that countries can send samples without delay.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited for brevity.

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