Finding cures for world poor is IVI's key task
The Korea Herald,
July 19, 2005
With an array of scientists from 17 countries, the Seoul-based International Vaccine Institute works round the clock trying to ensure the world has vaccines to fight diseases, particularly in poorer countries.
"Vaccines were responsible for eradicating small pox. Vaccines will be necessary to protect populations in the area of bio-defense now that small pox has reared its ugly head in the form of bio-terrorism. Vaccines are in the process of eradicating polio but that is a tough fight," said Director General John Clemens at IVI's headquarters on the grounds of Seoul National University.
"Fundamentally, vaccines are the most cost effective tools for preventing deaths and disability in developing countries."
At present, IVI is the only international research organization in the world devoted exclusively to researching new vaccines for the world's poor. Another unique feature of IVI is that it's currently the only international organization hosted by South Korea.
Some 90 percent of the deaths worldwide from infectious diseases occurred in the world's poorest countries, with the remaining 10 percent in the world's rich countries, according to IVI research.
"A major item in our agenda for the third world is to reduce this gap in infectious disease mortality between the rich and the poor," said Clemens.
"Corresponding to this gap in mortality there is also a gap in vaccines. Major vaccine producers have very little incentive to develop new vaccines that protect against the diseases that affect the poor and not the rich.
"A very sad observation is that the gap in vaccines between rich and poor also results from the fact that we have many licensed vaccines against diseases that are rampant in developing countries.
"These are licensed vaccines available to people in rich countries, available to travelers and tourists from rich countries traveling to poor countries that are not being used in developing countries."
In closing the gap between rich and poor, the IVI has two challenges.
"Firstly, to develop new vaccines against diseases causing millions of deaths every year in the developing world. But also to deploy and use the available vaccines that are sadly only being used in rich countries but are not seeing the light of day in poor countries," said Clemens, whose job carries ambassadorial status.
Closing the gap
In narrowing the gap for the near future "we conduct research that focuses on using the vaccines we already have in developing countries for the poor."
This research on existing new generation vaccines provides evidence to address policy uncertainties about introducing existing vaccines into developing countries with limited resources.
"This research addresses questions like which disease to vaccinate against if you have a very limited health budget in a developing country," he said. "There might be questions about vaccine safety and impact so we conduct vaccine trials on humans."
The IVI's is also concerned with how to introduce these vaccines. With only about 100 people right now, IVI has to make strategic decisions regarding what diseases it needs to work on first. "We work on vaccines against diarrhea. The sad fact is that 3 million kids die each year of diarrhea in developing countries. It's a huge public health problem that needs to be addressed.
"Secondly, we work on vaccines against bacterial causes of pneumonia and meningitis that cause about 1.5 million deaths per year in poor countries. And thirdly we work on certain mosquito born diseases like Japanese encephalitis which used to be a major disease in Korea as well as dengue fever, which causes catastrophic outbreaks."
The second strategy beyond translational research is making affordable vaccines available by working with the manufacturers.
Clemens said that IVI works with both international manufacturers as well as local manufacturers. "Increasingly, local manufacturers in Asia and Latin America in particular are emerging as important producers of vaccines against diseases that exclusively affect developing countries."
IVI began as a seed project of the United Nations Development Program. In the early 1990s, the UNDP thought there was a need for a basic research organization devoted to the cause of new vaccines for the world's poorest children.
The UNDP hosted a contest in the Asia-Pacific region for the right to host this institute, and Korea won the international competition.
In 1997 IVI became an independent international organization under the Vienna Convention and is autonomous and independent. It is governed by a board of trustees, most of whom are chosen in their individual capacities. Currently 35 countries together with the World Health Organization have signed IVI's charter.
By Yoav Cerralbo