When the pandemic began this spring, scientists worldwide rapidly launched experiments to understand SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for overloading healthcare systems and devastating economies. They had a laundry list of questions: How was the virus infecting our cells? How long did it remain in our bodies? Why did the virus lead to severe disease in some, but cause no symptoms in others?
To find the answers to these questions, researchers required data and samples. Realizing this need, Dr. Vincent Mooser, holder of the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Genomic Medicine and a professor of human genetics at McGill University, helped spearhead an initiative to create a large collection of samples from COVID-19 patients in Quebec. The plans for this project were hatched in March, when hospitals across the province had yet to experience a huge influx of patients. But seeing that the pandemic was filling intensive care units and straining medical resources in other parts of the world, for Mooser, it was clear that a “tsunami of problems” was on its way.
Anticipating the pandemic on the horizon, representatives at Génome Québec and the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé (FRQS) immediately agreed to support the initiative, Mooser says. With seed funding from these two organizations, the Biobanque québécoise de la COVID-19 (BQC19), also known as the COVID-19 Québec Biobank, was born—with Mooser as director of its steering committee.
Once the plan for BQC19 was set in motion, Mooser assembled a group of 12 clinicians, scientists, ethicists and operations experts to develop the medical, ethical, and physical framework for the biobank. Together, they identified scientific priorities, designed study protocols, set up IT infrastructure, and applied for ethics approval. By working around the clock, the task force completed these tasks in just under two weeks. Thanks to the contribution of hundreds of people on the ground, the BQC19 officially launched on April 1, with the first patient sample collected at the Jewish General Hospital (JGH) in Montreal.
BQC19 is a decentralized biobank with samples from multiple institutions. In total, 11 centres across Quebec agreed to take part in the program: CHUM, MUHC, Douglas Mental Health University Institute, CHU Sainte-Justine, CIUSSS du Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean, CHU de Québec – Université Laval, CHUS and CRCHUS, Institut universitaire de cardiologie et de pneumologie de Québec, Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal, Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont, and JGH.
“This was really a team effort. It required enormous input from the legal team, the ethics team, from finance, and from hospital leadership,” says Dr. Brent Richards, BSc’96, MSc’06, PGME’06, a member of the steering committee for BQC19 and a professor in the Department of Medicine at McGill University. “We really needed people to drop what they were doing and get their hands on deck to do this very quickly.”
Setting up the biobank didn’t come without challenges—putting the biobank protocols in place at 11 different institutions required navigating a complex legal and logistical landscape. But having the shared goal of fighting COVID-19 helped, Mooser says. “There’s nothing better than a big common enemy to get people to fight together.”
In addition to funding from FRQS and Génome Québec, financial support from the Public Health Agency of Canada, provided the crucial resources needed to gather and store samples. Moreover, contributions from the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity (MI4) and philanthropists who donated to BQC19 enabled detailed COVID-19-related research on BQC19 samples.
“This initiative brought together people across the community,” Richards says. “A lot of people stepped up to the plate and wrote cheques to enable our hospitals to have a clinical and research response to this pandemic.”
Since April, hundreds of patient samples have been added to BQC19. The collection includes blood from patients who had experienced a broad range of disease severity. The team chose to collect blood, Mooser says, since scientists can extract DNA, RNA and proteins such as antibodies to conduct a wide assortment of analyses.
BQC19 has also contributed its data to the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, a large, global genetics consortium. “It’s an international collaboration where we have played, in some aspects, a leading role to collect all the available COVID-related genetic data from around the world,” Richards says. “And that has resulted in the identification of several genes and regions of the genome that are strongly associated with severe COVID outcomes.”
The biobank’s work is only beginning. “From a scientific and clinical perspective, we are just starting to make an impact,” Mooser says. “We are in the process of analyzing our samples, and we anticipate that this detailed analysis will be very valuable to our mission—to better understand the molecular and clinical determinants of disease susceptibility, severity, and outcome.”
The BQC19 team has also been adapting to new developments. For example, the promising COVID-19 vaccine announcements have led the group to consider ways to tackle additional questions, such as how efficacious those vaccines are outside of a clinical trial, and what factors determine how protective vaccines are to a particular individual. “It’s our duty to respond quickly,” Richards says. “We’re trying to adapt to that reality and make sure that we are serving our communities as best as we can.”
With the biobank framework now established, the hope is that if another pandemic hits, researchers will be better prepared to address it. “We have put infrastructure in place to handle samples and data, and for researchers to access them,” Mooser says. “I think we will be much more ready than we were nine months ago.”