New paper: how biofoundries can help countries strengthen pandemic preparedness
There’s no disputing that the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating on a global scale.
As its impacts continue to sweep countries, academics are contemplating a bleak future: this won’t be the last pandemic that the world tackles.
In recent years we have seen outbreaks of SARS, MERS and Ebola. And the frequency of emerging pandemic-capable diseases is increasing. So what can the world do in the face of continuing and escalating threats?
Biofoundries as critical infrastructure
A study published last month in Nature Communications by the Synthetic Biology FSP team explores how the current pandemic has demonstrated the power of biology, both in relation to our vulnerability to it, and our ability to engineer solutions to global problems using it.
As of 2022, the world has lost almost 4.8 million people across the world – a number which is rapidly increasing. Yet it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that vaccines used to tackle the SARS-CoV-2 virus were developed in record time.
One of the key lessons of the current pandemic, authors Dr Claudia Vickers and Dr Paul Freemont explain, is to increase the availability of biofoundries globally. The authors underscore the need for affordable regional biofoundry access in less developed countries in order to develop their independent capability in pandemic preparedness.
“Access to biofoundries is currently limited to a few wealthy nations, and the technology is still relatively nascent, with more development required to deliver on their full potential,” said the report authors.
This would overcome issues such as supply chain breakdowns, which can compound existing bottlenecks in vaccine and diagnostic development times.
In a pandemic, biofoundries are not only essential for their ability accelerate vaccine development time (this is made possible through ‘high-throughput’ testing facilities). They also provide a space to rapidly develop other tools at subsequent stages of pandemics: diagnostic tools, point-of-care kits, and therapeutics development (e.g. antiviral drugs). Further, biofoundry facilities can be rapidly converted to independent testing facilities to contribute to epidemiological analysis.
CSIRO BioFoundry Manager Dr Janet Reid says that the facility is a key piece of infrastructure that has played a critical role in the current pandemic.
“In the earliest months of the pandemic, our biofoundry was able to shift focus from a project for the food industry to rapidly begin creating biological materials designed for a vaccine development investigation. We are proud of our ability to respond to a significant crisis.
We are continually expanding our capabilities through the work we do with agriculture, food and chemical research industries, and remain prepared to shift gears in case of future pandemic response.”
Vickers, C.E., Freemont, P.S. Pandemic preparedness: synthetic biology and publicly funded biofoundries can rapidly accelerate response time. Nat Commun 13, 453 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-28103-3