On December 31, the first news reached South Korea of a cluster of coronavirus infections in Wuhan. Seegene's chief executive Chun Jong-yoon, 63, was already anticipating the worst, as the risk of a global outbreak was high. Chun immediately ceased all other work at his Seoul-based biotech firm, Seegene, and ordered his lead researcher and staff to focus entirely on producing a diagnostic kit for the Covid-19. "Development needed to be very fast," Chun says. "Before the situation became more serious, we had to be prepared."
In two weeks Seegene had developed its test, the Allplex 2019-nCoV Assay. On January 27, following the first confirmed case in South Korea, Chun received an urgent call from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC); the agency requested the testing kit for review and soon learned that Seegene's development process aligned closely with the guidelines of the KCDC.
On February 12, the KCDC approved Seegene's kit for use. Such go-aheads typically take at least six months; European health authorities gave approval five days earlier. "It was an urgent matter so it was important to respond quickly," Chun says. "The fact that the KCDC approved this in two weeks was unprecedented."
It was the availability of Seegene's test kits, along with the government's rapid response to do massive testing and other measures, that helped South Korea contain the spread of Covid-19. In a country of 51 million, South Korea has recorded less than 10,000 cases, below the figure for Switzerland, with a population of 8.6 million.
By the time Forbes Korea interviewed Chun in mid-March, Seegene was already overwhelmed with orders. Previously producing 100,000 tests per week, the firm says its capacity has risen to 1 million tests. It has tests going to 40 countries including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and countries around Asia; it submitted the test to the U.S. and is awaiting approval from the FDA. With infections still spreading worldwide, Seegene is now preparing to ramp up production even more.
"Right now we are stopping everything else and putting all our effort into producing the kits," Chun says. "The demand from governments and medical agencies has been overwhelming. We could potentially supply as much as 3 million test kits per week.
But if there is still a shortage, we could provide the expertise [for others] to develop the kit for free. We have that intention," he says. "The virus shouldn't spread due to limitations in testing."
Publicly listed Seegene's facilities are located in two buildings in southeastern Seoul. By nature, manufacturing the tests doesn't require a massive space or huge machines. What's essential is labor, so Seegene has more than doubled its staff to meet the current demand, implementing a two-shift system that it soon plans to raise to three. The company says it's also looking to move its facilities to Seoul's outskirts by next year, so it can expand its capacity even further.
Chun attributes his dedication to medicine to his battle as a teenager with tuberculosis. He was diagnosed shortly after he graduated middle school, leaving him in rehabilitation for five years and unable to attend high school; he earned a general equivalency diploma. H e went to Seoul's Konkuk University, getting a degree in agriculture, and eventually obtained a Ph.D. in Life Sciences from the University of Tennessee. He then earned post-doctoral fellowships from Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley.
Chun returned to South Korea in 1995, and after a stint in DNA research, became a biology professor at Seoul's Ewha Womans University, but he had entrepreneurship on his mind. "Even while I was in school, I was already thinking of starting a business," he said. "In life we can do more with business than with research. But to run a successful business you have to be persistent.”
Chun launched Seegene in 2000 with a 300 million Korean won investment from his uncle (about $240,000 in today's dollars). For the first three years, Seegene had zero revenue. "Even though it was a difficult time, I was determined to do this," says Chun. "If I produce something extraordinary, then all of the world will be watching."
Seegene developed kits for diagnosing respiratory, digestive, sexually transmitted diseases and cancers, but found few takers at local hospitals, Chun recalls. It was abroad where Seegene finally found its market: 82% of Seegene's revenue now comes from exports. The U.S. and Europe are Seegene's major markets. Chun says he has traveled all over the world to personally demonstrate Seegene's tests, and credits that for the company's global success. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the company’s net income last year more than doubled to $23 million on a 19% increase in sales, to $105.3 million. Seegene's stock has more than doubled since January to a recent 88,100 Korean won, and the company sports a market cap close to $2 billion.
Seegene's test resides in a single test tube, where it identifies three target genes present in Covid-19. Because it streamlines the testing process, it takes a tenth the time of manual tests and reduces the risk of human error in diagnosis.
While other tests look for the presence of antibodies, Seegene's uses what's called a polymerase chain reaction to spot the virus present in body fluids before antibodies form. Such molecular diagnostics—in contrast to older immunodiagnostics—are faster and more accurate, Chun says. It also means people infected with Covid-19 can be spotted before they show any symptoms.
In addition to stemming the spread of the coronavirus, Chun sees his testing approach as a victory for molecular diagnostics. "In ten years," he says, "I aim to make molecular diagnosis easier, affordable and widespread."
This article has been adapted from a story by Zinone Lee that appeared in Forbes Korea , a licensee edition of Forbes Media.
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