[INTERVIEW] Seegene on the front lines of epidemic fight
At the moment, the country is capable of running up to 10,000 tests for Covid-19, the official name of the coronavirus, infections each day - a capacity 10 to 20 times that of other countries affected by the virus, including China, Japan and the United States.
While that unparalleled testing capability has contributed to Korea having the second-highest number of confirmed cases in the world, it has also helped Korea gain control of the epidemic on its soil, largely thanks to local biotech industry players like Seegene that developed diagnostic kits for the novel virus ahead of market demand.
That early work, and regulators’ willingness to expedite approval, has helped cut the time it takes to diagnose a coronavirus patient from a full day to less than six hours. Seegene’s diagnostic solution accounts for more than half of the coronavirus tests conducted in Korea.
Seegene founder and CEO Chun Jong-yoon said in an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo last week that the company has allocated all of its resources to producing and distributing the highly sought-after diagnostic solution, even at the cost of Seegen’s bottom line.
Its single-tube diagnostic kit, the Allplex 2019-nCoV Assay, earned emergency approval from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety to be used to diagnose Covid-19 cases.
The company started even before the virus was confirmed to have spread to Korea. On Feb. 12, the day the Allplex 2019-nCoV Assay earned approval from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, Korea had a total of 28 confirmed cases and no deaths. Chun said the company started developing the assay in mid-January.
Two more companies won approval from the authority to distribute similar testing products last month. Before those reached the market, solutions from Seegene and Seoul-based Kogene Biotech had been responsible for all Covid-19 diagnostics in the country.
Below are edited excerpts of the interview with Chun.
Q. When was the diagnostic kit developed?
A. It took two weeks for the kit to be developed, and it took another seven days for it to be approved.
The development process kicked off in mid-January, but there weren’t any confirmed cases in Korea yet.
There weren’t any cases domestically, but the number of coronavirus cases had been increasing fast in China, mainly in Wuhan. I predetermined that the virus would soon spread from China to Korea. And on Jan. 12, [DNA] sequence reads for Covid-19 became available from the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information. The World Health Organization also released information on the diagnostic drug for Covid-19 developed by Charite University Hospital in Berlin. Seegene decided to embark on developing our own kit on Jan. 21, after a Jan. 16 internal discussion on the matter. Thankfully, we found out the requirements for emergency approval during the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s briefing on Jan. 27, the last day of the Lunar New Year holidays, and rushed to complete development.
Isn’t it too risky to develop a virus diagnostic kit without earning approval to use it from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety?
Absolutely. There was a risk of rushing development and not earning approval in the first place, and there was also the danger of commercializing the product after the situation is over, only to be left with piles of diagnostic kits in our storage.
Without the emergency approval policy, the entire timeline of starting product development to earning approval would take 12 months. We seriously evaluated all risks and started an adventure.
We heard that Seegene’s kit resolved more than half of the demand for Covid-19 diagnostic kits in the country. The country is in an emergency, but isn’t this a good opportunity for the company?
Not really. We are putting all of our resources into everything related to the coronavirus, but Seegene has developed more than 160 diagnostic kits for different diseases and viruses. We must be conducting the needed R&D [research and development] efforts to meet the demands of foreign clients, which take up 82 percent of our total sales, but we no resources left at this point to take care of those clients.
Currently, there are 68 R&D employees dispatched throughout the country to provide on-site education for using the kits and additional support.
How could you develop the kit in just two weeks?
The fast development was possible because the sequence information for Covid-19’s gene became publicly available. With that information, Seegene could quickly design the diagnostic solution for the novel virus using our data and know-how from developing other solutions from the past 20 years, along with high-performing computers and algorithm technology based on artificial intelligence. With artificial intelligence and computers, what traditionally took a full three months with 100 field experts could be done in just three hours.
BY CHOI JOON-HO, KO JUN-TAE [firstname.lastname@example.org]