IVI develops affordable vaccines
By J.R. Breen
The headquarters of the International Vaccine Institute (IVI), a rare case of an organization with a global mission based in Korea, lies on the slopes of Mt. Gwanak in southern Seoul.
The institute focuses on diseases effecting developing world populations, specifically children and has already developed a number of vaccines.
``These vaccines are of essentially no commercial interest to the pharmaceutical companies, because the people who tend to get these diseases are the poorest of the poor,'' says Director General John D. Clemens. ``That is really one of our niches, to develop vaccines where there is a so-called market failure.''
Since its establishment in 1996, and the opening of its laboratories only four years ago, IVI has created the world's first affordable vaccine for cholera, licensed in India, and is working on numerous others.
``Cholera is not a democratic disease,'' Clemens said. ``It selectively preys upon the very poor. Countries could provide a vaccine to the poor if it were in the range of 1 dollar per dose, and that is sort of the range our vaccine is in.''
Last year's cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe, still not over, has so far killed more than 4,000 people.
``We've worked on vaccines against causes of pneumonia, meningitis, influenza and tuberculosis, Japanese encephalitis and dengue fever,'' he said. ``It has been estimated that for a major pharmaceutical company to go from concept to product will take anywhere between 12 and 15 years and somewhere in the order of $500 million.''
``Our laboratories have been operational essentially for only four years, and we have already licensed a vaccine, that gives you a sense of the tempo at which our folks are working.''
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Sweden, Kuwait and the Netherlands are some of the larger donors to the institute, however IVI also has a fundraising group that collects from the private sector in Korea, Clemens said.
The IVI was started by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which decided that a vaccine institute would be best positioned in Asia, where modern dynamic economies were side by side developing countries.
IVI came to be situated in Korea ``based on a variety of factors, including Korea's clear commitment to the institute,'' said Clemens. ``Korea's desire to pay back the world for its assistance during and after the Korean War, as well as Korea's very strong biotechnology environment.''
The possibility of situating the institute on Seoul National University campus in the Gwanak district of Seoul was also a factor.
The non-profit organization also carries out exclusive work within North Korea. With the permission of the local government, IVI provides the country with vaccines for two deadly diseases.
``Our work in North Korea (is) very unique,'' stated Clemens. ``That is a project devoted to vaccines and diagnosis and care to two kinds of very lethal pediatric infections, bacterial meningitis and Japanese encephalitis.''
``(South) Korea already vaccinates against these two diseases routinely, North Korea does not routinely vaccinate against meningitis and at the time we started was not vaccinating against Japanese encephalitis,'' he said. ``Following our very successful demonstration project that we did outside of Pyongyang, the North Korean government initiated countrywide vaccination of its children.''
IVI currently employs approximately 170 staff at its headquarters, two-thirds of whom are scientists and technical staff hailing from 18 countries.
Cecil Cerkinsky, deputy director general of the laboratory sciences division, who is French, spent seven years in France as the director of the public research laboratory INSERM before coming to Korea in 2005.
Cerkinsky says he came to work for IVI ``for the challenge. I was mostly academic research (before), here it is fairly unique. It offers the opportunity to link academic research with clinical research.''
``I was at a very early stage interested in science, rapidly my interest increased,'' Cerkinsky said, adding that he has done two Ph. Ds.
While he was doing his second at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, a scientist named Orjan Ouchterlony made a significant discovery of what is termed double immunodiffusion, a diagnostic test which involves diffusion through a substance such as agar. ``There was no skill there, just pure result, and that drove me,'' he recalled.
Japanese-born Leon Ochiai has been a research scientist at the headquarters in Seoul since 2002.
Educated at Johns Hopkins University, the U.S., Ochiai said that he has always been interested in public health.
``My background is public health, so I really like doing this research because it is not just about licensing the vaccine but how you bring the vaccine to the people,'' he said. ``My belief is that everyone should be at the same start line, rich and poor I don't think you can just fix it immediately and even if you give a lot of money to the poorest they might not be using it in the right way, and in the end what makes the difference is whether they are willing to change their own life.''
``To change their own life they have to be on the same start line, and health in childhood is at least providing even the poorest to get better in their life.''
Since Ochiai joined IVI, he has been working on the typhoid vaccine development program.
Last month, Clemens was awarded the Albert B. Sabin Gold Medal, awarded for ``extraordinary contributions to the field of vaccinology,'' according to the Sabin Insitute's web site.
First lady of Korea Kim Yoon-ok congratulated Clemens at a charity concert on May 5. She personally makes a monthly donation to the institute, adding to Korea's already long list of donors to the institute.
``The Republic of Korea has provided us with this headquarters building, with state of the art laboratories, as well as it provides a portion of the operating budget,'' said Clemens. ``We have project grants as well, for example our work in North Korea is supported by the Ministry of Unification.''