The Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Screening and Biobanking

With a backlog of cancer screening and treatment, what can be done to get cancer care back on track?

Erik Steinfelder
Erik Steinfelder

Erik Steinfelder joined Thermo Fisher Scientific in 2008. In his position as biobank commercial leader EMEA, he went on to head the complete biobank portfolio activities. Between August 2017 and January 2020, Steinfelder was director-general of BBMRI-ERIC, a research infrastructure that brings together the main players from the biobanking field to boost biomedical research. In February 2020, he returned to Thermo Fisher Scientific as biobanking market development director and is currently the company's global enterprise relationship lead.


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on cancer care. Global lockdowns, restricted travel, and prioritizing hospital infrastructure for COVID-19 patients severely disrupted cancer services. For breast cancer alone, it is thought that the pause in UK breast screening services between March and summer 2020 has resulted in almost 1.5 million fewer women being screened, compared to pre-pandemic levels. At time of writing, Breast Cancer Now estimates that around 12,000 people in the UK could be living with undiagnosed breast cancer due to COVID-related disruptions to screening services. With this backlog of cancer screening and treatment, what can be done to help health services get their cancer care back to pre-pandemic levels?

Biobanks on ice during the pandemic

In addition to frontline patient services, rebuilding cancer care involves getting auxiliary research and development services like biobanks back to full capacity. Biobanks are crucial nodes of clinical and biomedical research that provide resources for understanding the causes of and identifying potential treatment for cancers. Biobanking has also been affected by the pandemic, with operations still recovering from disruptions to the supply chain, pauses in sample collection, and a reduced capacity to share patient samples and data.

These new challenges to biobanking build on issues that existed prior to the pandemic. For example, some biobanks operated as siloed data stores rather than collaborative service providers, while others were yet to establish systems to comply with biobanking standards introduced in 2018. The biobanks facing these issues were less able to act as data sharing resources and service providers to medical researchers and drug developers than other biobanking facilities.

However, the pandemic has sparked changes in how biobanks are run. Many are using the disruption to expand their roles as tissue stores into open repositories of data that can provide valuable insight into cancer research.

Biobanks: vast repositories of potential cancer treatments

During the pandemic, there has been a focus on developing new ways to establish and maintain reliable sample storage conditions with minimal staff oversight and disruption to supply chains. Cryopreservation systems have also come to the forefront, with biobanks turning to more sustainable and efficient systems of sample storage, indexing, and data sharing. For example, biobanks are turning to modern cryogenic freezers that are more energy efficient, have a smaller carbon footprint, and provide more consistent temperature control to safeguard sample integrity.

By establishing vast data repositories that can be accessed openly, biobanks actively create broader networks of collaborations with the ultimate goal of driving discoveries in cancer treatment and screening. The 1+ Million Genome project is an exemplary network of biobanks across 24 European countries that has pledged cross-border, centralized access to a million genomes by 2022. The hope is for a rich, open database that provides the knowledge to develop personalized therapies, among other things.

Overall, the pandemic has been a learning experience for the clinical and biomedical research sectors. Much work is still required to catch-up cancer treatment and research strategies after the global disruption, but the pandemic has also provided an opportunity to adapt and develop new strategies for services within biobanks.


Erik Steinfelder

Erik Steinfelder joined Thermo Fisher Scientific in 2008. In his position as biobank commercial leader EMEA, he went on to head the complete biobank portfolio activities. Between August 2017 and January 2020, Steinfelder was director-general of BBMRI-ERIC, a research infrastructure that brings together the main players from the biobanking field to boost biomedical research. In February 2020, he returned to Thermo Fisher Scientific as biobanking market development director and is currently the company's global enterprise relationship lead.