MONTREAL -- A team of Montreal scientists is collecting biological samples from severely ill COVID-19 patients to understand what made them vulnerable, and has already created one of the world’s biggest “biobanks” out of the information.

“I’m very happy to report that by yesterday, we had 494 patients who had been recruited in this biobank,” said Dr. Vincent Mooser, a gene scientist at McGill University.

The patients, who all gave consent to join the project, have been treated at five different Quebec hospitals that are run by three or four different universities, so the logistics have been complicated.

They have also been among the most seriously ill of Quebec’s COVID-19 patients—which is an important part of the project, since Mooser and the other scientists at the McGill University Biobank are trying to find commonalities that suggest why they were so vulnerable to the virus.

“What we are really wanting to know as quickly is possible is, firstly, can we identify a pattern, a clinical pattern, which allows us to better understand who is at risk for developing a severe form of the disease?” he asked.

The determining factors could be social, or biological, “in terms of immune response and serology,” Mooser said, but could also be the genetics of both the patient and the virus.

Severely ill patients “may have a genetic susceptibility to the disease and its complications,” he said.

Aside from getting each patient’s consent, his or her medical records and a questionnaire, the team is collecting biological samples: blood, plasma and white blood cells. They isolate the DNA.

“We will be starting the analysis of these data and samples very soon,” said Mooser.

The biobank is also branching out to recruit patients from Chicoutimi and Quebec City, and soon from Sherbrooke.

“What we have learned so far is that people are really willing to be part of this biobank,” said Mooser, “but it’s also really hard. One of the critical things is safety of the personnel.”

Nurses have to do extra work to collect all the information and the samples, and they therefore need to be properly protected during the process.

“It’s really hard work, but we believe the work is worth the effort and deserves all of our attention and energy,” he said.

Mooser, who received a prestigious Canada Excellence Research Chair at McGill last year, was called a “pioneer” at the time in the use of genes to develop new, highly targeted therapies for various diseases.