New Switzerland based hub for pathogen storage, sharing and analysis

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Swiss Federal Councillor, Alain Berset, signed an agreement in relation to the BioHub on the edges of the World Health Assembly yesterday [May 24] © WHO/Christopher Black
WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Swiss Federal Councillor, Alain Berset, signed an agreement in relation to the BioHub on the edges of the World Health Assembly yesterday [May 24] © WHO/Christopher Black

Related tags SARS-COV-2 variants Vaccines WHO equity

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Swiss Confederation have launched the first WHO BioHub Facility to enhance the rapid sharing of viruses and other pathogens between laboratories and partners globally.

Based in Spiez, Switzerland, the entity will serve as a center for the safe receipt, sequencing, storage and preparation of biological materials for distribution to other laboratories, in order to inform risk assessments, and sustain global preparedness against these pathogens, said the parties.

Close international collaboration to ensure the timely sharing of epidemiological and clinical data as well as biological materials is of utmost importance,” ​said Swiss Federal Councillor, Alain Berset.

Berset and WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, signed the memorandum of understanding on the edges of the World Health Assembly, an event that sees health ministers from the WHO’s 194 member states come together.

Currently, most pathogen sharing is done bilaterally between countries and on an ad hoc basis, which can be slow, and leave some countries without access to the benefits and tools, said the WHO.

The BioHub will enable member states to share biological materials with and via the BioHub under pre-agreed conditions, including biosafety, biosecurity, and other applicable regulations. This will ensure timeliness and predictability in response activities, according to the organization. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic and other outbreaks and epidemics have underscored the importance of rapidly sharing pathogens to help the global scientific community assess the risk and develop countermeasures such as diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines,”​ said the WHO Director-General. “The BioHub System is an important step towards facilitating this flow of information.”

In parallel, the WHO said it will broaden its BioHub System for the use of biological materials by qualified entities – such as manufacturers – for the development of medical by-products for fair allocation to countries.

The organization is currently running a pilot phase, using SARS-COV-2 and its variants, to test the feasibility and operational arrangements for sharing such materials with the facilities of the BioHub System.

Following results from the pilot project, the BioHub will expand from SARS-COV-2 and its variants, to other pathogens, and connect partners with other repositories and laboratory networks in 2022.

Inequitable vaccine distribution

Meanwhile, in a speech to World Health Assembly yesterday [May 24], the WHO DG noted that there has been a downturn in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths being reported for three consecutive weeks but he warned that “the pandemic is not over, and it will not be over until and unless transmission is controlled in every last country.”

And he touched on vaccine distribution inequity.

“More than 75% of all vaccines have been administered in just 10 countries. There is no diplomatic way to say it: a small group of countries that make and buy the majority of the world’s vaccines control the fate of the rest of the world.”

The number of doses administered globally so far would have been enough to cover all health workers and older people, if they had been distributed equitably, he said.

The supply of vaccines to COVAX remains vastly inadequate, added the WHO lead. “We have shipped every single one of the 72 million doses we have been able to get our hands on so far to 125 countries and economies. But those doses are sufficient for barely 1% of the combined population of those countries.”

License sharing

He urged vaccine producers to scale-up manufacturing.

“Several manufacturers have said they have capacity to produce vaccines if the originator companies are willing to share licenses, technology and know-how. I find it difficult to understand why this has not happened yet.”

US president, Joe Biden, declared his support for waiving international patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines earlier this month, triggering a backlash from the pharma sector and many Republicans.

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