EU ‘biobank’ first to benefit from VAT exemption


A pan-European biobanking initiative looks set to become the first research consortium to benefit from VAT-free status under a new regulation agreed by EU leaders in May.

The group of biobanks would also be exempt from excise duty if it is established as an international agency under the European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC) scheme, and could employ staff in several member states under a common contract. 

This would allow greater mobility for employees who could move between offices while retaining health and social security benefits. 

Biobanking experts, gathered in Brussels yesterday (16 September), said Europe is a world leader in the field but needs a more cohesive network of biobanks in order to attract pharmaceutical firms, some of which have moved to Asia in recent years. 

Kurt Zatloukal from the Medical University of Graz, Austria, who coordinates the Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure (BBMRI), said the group aims to harmonise standards in the collection and usage of biomaterials. 

“Access to biological materials is essential to exploiting technology for the benefit of academia and the pharmaceutical industry. However, we need new resources and a more structured infrastructure to overcome current fragmentation and inefficiencies,” he said. 

Need for common standards

Zatloukal noted there are currently no common standards for using DNA, tissue and blood samples, and that quality varies significantly across Europe. Applying a “one-size-fits-all” model will not work, he said, adding that Nordic countries have a tradition of collecting biomaterial, while others are suspicious of sharing personal data with the authorities. 

The European group is likely to implement new OECD guidelines on the collection of biomaterials, marking its intentions to lead on a global scale. 

To qualify for ERIC status, a pan-European agency must anchor itself in a single member state. Austria and the Netherlands have both expressed an interest in hosting the BBMRI, but the final decision will have to be worked out at ministerial level. 

Eero Vuorio, from the University of Turku in Finland, said elevating the biobank initiative to ERIC status will mean starting with a small group of the most advanced member states, with others joining later. 

The consortium already has registered over 50 participating biobanks as well as more than 200 associate members from the EU, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Turkey and Israel, but not all of these will be part of the ERIC. 

The move comes as the EU executive is beginning the groundwork for its next major research funding plan, the Eighth Framework Programme for Research (FP8), which will replace the current plan in 2013. 

A major boost in support for Europe’s biobanks is expected as policymakers are keen to build up capacity in an area seen as a future growth area. 

Michael Griffith, chairman of the BBMRI stakeholders' forum, said the network is moving from the preparatory phase towards implementation and must now involve patients, industry, clinicians, funding agencies and end-users in the process. He said it is important to listen to their concerns and provide more information to the public. 

Eero Vuorio from the University of Turku in Finland said the more that people understand about biobanking, the more they accept it. 

Collections of biological materials such as DNA, tissues, cells or blood can be stored in biobanks to help scientists conduct research into cures for diseases. Samples are usually anonymised or coded so that researchers cannot identify the individual whose tissue or blood they are working with. 

There are at least over 100 biobanks dotted across Europe, but the system for collecting and using the material varies significantly from country to country. In 2008, the Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure (BBMRI) was set up, with an initial budget of €5 million to improve coordination between biobanks. 

The BBMRI is one of 44 initiatives funded by the European Strategic Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), supported by the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). Its preparatory phase was initially envisaged as lasting two years, although this may be extended. 

In May, the European Council adopted a regulation to treat this type of research infrastructure in the same manner as international organisations for taxation purposes (EURACTIV 03/06/09). So-called European Research Infrastructure Consortia (ERCI) will benefit from a VAT exemption as well as reduced administrative costs. 

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