A virtual biobank to accelerate NTD diagnostics development: an Infectious Thoughts interview

FIND, the global alliance for diagnostics, seeks to ensure equitable access to reliable diagnosis around the world. To facilitate and accelerate worldwide collaboration in reaching this goal, FIND recently launched the DxConnect Virtual Biobank, a collaborative, open-access platform launched to provide a global view of infectious disease samples available worldwide and to connect researchers and diagnostic developers who need these samples with the institutions that collect or store them. In this Infectious Thoughts interview, Kamran Rafiq from the ISNTD ask colleagues from FIND about the scope and aims of the DxConnect Virtual Biobank.

To find out more, please register and attend the upcoming ISNTD Connect on virtual biobanks:

"Accelerating development of diagnostics for NTDs: a virtual biobank to alleviate a critical bottleneck in test development and stimulate collaboration"

Prof Joseph Ndung’u (Executive Director, FIND Kenya)

Dominic Allen (DxConnect Virtual Biobank Project Lead, FIND)

Dr Aubrey Cunnington (Digital Diagnostics for Africa Network & Imperial College London)

Thursday 7th October 2021 - 14:00-15:30 UTC

Photo credit: FIND / George Muiruri © FIND 2021

Kamran Rafiq (KR): What is FIND hoping to achieve with the virtual biobank project?

FIND: Our key goal is to support and accelerate the development of high-priority diagnostics, especially in the field of Neglected Tropical Diseases where diagnostic gaps are massive and require concerted efforts to reach WHO 2030 targets and to bring us closer to disease control and elimination. To do so, the DxConnect Virtual Biobank aims to address one of the recognized bottlenecks faced by diagnostic developers: the difficulty of accessing suitable biological samples to develop and validate their tests.

Are there any geographies that you are prioritising, or is this really a worldwide, all-inclusive approach?

The vision is to work with a global network of institutions to build a database of sample collections available worldwide to maximize the use of existing resources, increase efficiency in sample access and stimulate research collaborations. It is designed to be a collaborative platform that is available freely, without use fee, to all stakeholders including academic, non-profit and industry sectors, to advance diagnostic development.

Has the age of COVID-19, with all the restrictions worldwide, catalysed/energised or indeed hindered this project?

The availability of suitable samples for diagnostic research and development was already a recognized unmet need across many NTDs and other infectious diseases. To meet that demand, FIND has established and expanded its biobank over the last 10 years, distributing high-quality samples to diagnostic developers for TB, malaria, fever and HCV, as well as collaborating with WHO on NTD collections.

Before COVID-19, we were already working on a new approach to support biobank capacity building in the countries – through a network of FIND integrated biobanks (FIB) – and on the virtual biobank concept to increase collaborations with institutions collecting and storing samples worldwide. But COVID-19 has been a catalyst for operationalizing the DxConnect Virtual Biobank. At the early stage of the pandemic, diagnostic developers worldwide struggled to access the samples they needed to assess the performance of their tests. We launched the platform at the end of 2020 to respond to that challenge and, in parallel, we supported institutions (e.g. in Peru and South Africa) to collect these high-priority samples.

Today, the platform includes 12 COVID-19 collections from registered institutions in eight different countries and we are now focusing our efforts on institutions holding NTD collections – the first of these were added in September 2021.