High-level security lab in Switzerland steps up global fight against Covid and other dangerous pathogens

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, left, Director General of the WHO poses with Federal Councilor Alain Berset, after signing MoU for BioHub. (KEYSTONE / Martial Trezzini)

The Swiss government and the World Health Organization on Monday announced the launch of a BioHub facility for the sharing of data on viruses and other emerging pathogens that could lead to future outbreaks.

Tucked somewhere in the Bernese mountains of Switzerland the Biocontainment Laboratory in Spiez is set to become the first WHO BioHub, banking on the experience of the lab which was first established 1997 to protect against nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) threats and dangers.

Now the high security lab is opening its doors to the rest of the world to help prepare against future pandemics and the spread of dangerous pathogens such as the SARS-Cov-2.

Meeting on the sidelines of the seventy-fourth session of the World Health Assembly (WHA), Swiss federal councillor Alain Berset and WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus signed a memorandum of understanding launching the initiative.

“The MOU is a political agreement between Switzerland and the WHO, which serves as an umbrella to ensure that we can start the project.  It is really a way to bind us to the organisation, giving us the space to receive samples and store them straight away,” ambassador Nora Kronig Romero, heading up international affairs at the Federal Office of Public Health, told Geneva Solutions.

According to the WHO “the BioHub will focus on the rapid sharing of biological materials to support preparedness and response to pathogens.”

Countries already share data on pathogens, however, this is often done bilaterally and on an ad hoc basis, which can also further exclude some countries from accessing biological materials, Romero said.

By being under the umbrella of WHO “it will now be possible to have a common database sharing information on different types of pathogens, which is a different and more efficient mechanism than sharing between two countries,” she added.

The initiative will also help to speed up the data-sharing process, Dr Andreas Bucher, a spokesperson for the Spiez Laboratory told Geneva Solutions.

“Due to sometimes lengthy bilateral negotiations, the sharing of pathogens between individual labs can be time consuming. Timeliness is one of the greatest assets to support effective and fast response measures,” he said.

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The virologist Marc Strasser works in a protective suit on virus cultivation on the safety workbench in the biosafety laboratory. (KEYSTONE / Peter Schneider)

Choice of Spiez lab is a no-brainer. Speaking at the signing ceremony on Monday,  Ghebreyesus described the choice of setting up the lab in Spiez as a no-brainer given  the existing infrastructure and security already in place.

“There is already a high security lab (level four) with a lot of experience in receiving biodata,” Romero added.

Biological safety levels are ranked from one to four, with a lab designated biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) indicating that it can handle the world’s most dangerous pathogens causing potentially lethal diseases such as Ebola. Spiez is one of three labs in Switzerland with this status and one of around 50 in the world.

Although the BioHub will be based and funded by Switzerland, Bucher said it expects to work collaboratively with other labs around the world.

“The WHO BioHub will foster greater international cooperation. For Switzerland, close international collaboration to ensure a timely and transparent sharing of epidemiological and clinical data including biological samples of pathogens is of utmost importance, ” Bucher explained.

“Through the WHO BioHub System we will further contribute to expanding knowledge and advancing technical work on high-threat pathogens for health emergency preparedness and response.”

Establishing WHO as a global health leader. The launch of the hub comes as leaders urged the need to strengthen the global health body in the face of future crises.  At the opening ceremony of the WHA, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed that the WHO, “must be the heart, the compass of our global health.”

The WHO should be “robust in times of crisis, agile enough to react in an emergency, solid in the face of controversy, completely transparent to inspire confidence, with clear and transparent governance to avoid any diplomatic pressure,” he said.

Similarly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the importance of enabling the health organisation to better prepare for pandemic threats such as Covid, which the BioHub aims to do.

“The priority must be to enable the world to respond to pandemic threats as quickly as possible," she said.

Giving all the member states the opportunity to share and receive biological materials on a voluntary basis should enable the fast-sharing of data to prevent outbreaks and Romero explained that countries have shown interest particularly in the context of the pandemic.

“We will start with Covid-19 in light of the current situation, and then we will build on those experiences to see how to take it further. Extending the project (also to other pathogens) will be discussed with all the member states,” Romero added.

Voluntary sharing to start. In the first instance Romero does not expect there to be a great magnitude of sharing. The BioHub will launch a pilot phase based on SARS-COV-2 and its variants before the project is expanded to other pathogens in 2022. Based on “lessons-learned” from Covid, expansion to other biological materials will need to be discussed with all member states.

Asked how Switzerland could ensure that pathogens of potential risk are really shared with the BioHub – since the system is to be voluntary, Berset said  – “ What we are trying to offer is a stable infrastructure for this to develop.  But this also depends on the engagement of Switzerland, the WHO and the member states that want to benefit from this initiative.”

“We have to simply create the right conditions so that in the end, it’s evident that in this domain as well, the cooperation and the transparency benefits everyone.  That something can be rapidly analyzed, and also be at the disposition of the public as well as the private sector,” he added.