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(Yonhap Interview) Vaccines are cost-effective solution to improving global health: IVI chief

2017/11/05 09:00

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By Kim Han-joo

SEOUL, Nov. 5 (Yonhap) -- The head of a Seoul-based vaccine research institute said Sunday that vaccines are a "cost-effective" solution to enhancing global health, and called on the international community and pharmaceutical companies to join forces to develop safe and affordable vaccines to combat infectious diseases.

"Drugs are a solution, but a more cost-effective solution are vaccines," Jerome H. Kim, director general of the International Vaccine Institute (IVI), told Yonhap News Agency in an exclusive interview as the nonprofit dedicated to vaccine development and distribution marked its 20th year of operation.

Established in 1997, the IVI is the world's only international organization devoted exclusively to developing and introducing new and improved vaccines to protect the world's poorest people, especially children. It was set up as an initiative of the U.N. Development Program in 1997, and operates under a treaty signed by 35 countries and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Kim said vaccine development -- which is forecast to prevent between 2 and 3 million deaths every year -- is a long and tedious process that necessitates substantial investment of capital and human expertise for a period of at least 10 years. Thus, the development is primarily spearheaded by pharmaceutical giants with technology and capital.

"When we develop a vaccine, we don't expect to profit from them," said the director general, noting that the IVI's oral cholera vaccine cost some US$30 million, to develop, while the making of such drugs usually takes between $500 million – $1 billion.

The IVI developed the world's first affordable oral cholera vaccine and transferred the technology to the South Korean company EuBiologics in 2011 so it could be made for the world's underprivileged populations, mostly in Africa. Cholera is a disease that causes extreme dehydration and death in severe cases.

Citing the case of the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa in 2014, Kim noted the importance of developing vaccines for new types of diseases, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Lassa fever and Nipah Virus.

"We have always been sort of one step behind the disease," said Kim, urging more policymakers to be alert and pointing out that just because diseases are in other regions is no guarantee they won't affect our own people. "Viruses are just one plane ride away from us."

   The IVI currently works with nonprofit organizations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Samsung Foundation, as the injection of funds enables scientists to move candidate vaccines from the laboratory to the market.

Kim expressed hope that more countries, big conglomerates and the general public would be interested in the IVI's job, as costly trials have to be funded and conducted with substantial government support or special incentives to avoid the so-called valley of death -- the critical steps after positive clinical data have been obtained.

"The IVI has to be sustainable, and we have to get more scientists and countries interested in joining South Korea, India and Sweden as supporters of the IVI," Kim said.

The director general also emphasized the importance of "balancing" the global burden of diseases, what the IVI can do and funders' interests, while developing new vaccines.

As the next goal, the IVI is currently working on collaborations to achieve the target of developing new vaccines for tuberculosis (TB), citing that the bacteria-related disease directly affects people in South Korea at the moment.

A report showed that South Korea has the highest incidence rate of TB among the world's wealthiest countries belonging to the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Kim, considered a leader in HIV research and HIV vaccine development, also asked the Asian community to pay more attention to the HIV vaccine, citing that the number of new HIV patients in South Korea has greater than 1000 per year for the last 3 years.

"A new type of AIDS vaccine is currently under trial. I hope that the IVI could be involved in AIDS vaccine research in the future," said Kim, emphasizing that solving the AIDS issue should be a comprehensive program that involves not only vaccine development but an enhanced treatment program and public education.

"I think we have to get beyond blame and beyond the idea that the disease is due to bad behavior and that it kills people," said Kim, urging the public that HIV is not something to stigmatize.

Kim, a colonel in the United States Army Medical Corps, was named one of "The 50 Most Influential People in Vaccines" in 2014 by the vaccine industry organization Vaccine Nation. Kim is a professor of medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and is a fellow of the American College of Physicians and the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Jerome H. Kim, director general of the International Vaccine Institute (IVI), talks to Yonhap News Agency in an exclusive interview on Nov. 5, 2017, as the nonprofit dedicated to research in vaccine development and delivery for the developing world celebrates its 20th anniversary. (Yonhap) Jerome H. Kim, director general of the International Vaccine Institute (IVI), talks to Yonhap News Agency in an exclusive interview on Nov. 5, 2017, as the nonprofit dedicated to research in vaccine development and delivery for the developing world celebrates its 20th anniversary. (Yonhap)

khj@yna.co.kr

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