Photo: Conference view | Credit: CTBTO. - Photo: 2021

Bangladesh’s “Affordable Vaccine Pioneer” Wins Asia’s Nobel Prize

By Amitava Chowdhury

KOLKATTA (IDN) — One of 2021 Ramon Magsaysay Awards—known as ‘Asia’s Nobel Prize’—has been awarded to the Bangladeshi scientist Dr Firdausi Qadri who has played a “key role” in creating more affordable vaccines to combat cholera and typhoid, the Manila-based award foundation said in a statement on August 31.

The 70-year-old female scientist has dedicated a lifetime to help the poor overcome sickness and disease with her research at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research (ICDDR) at Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka.

In announcing Dr Qadri as one of the five winners of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) said that it “recognizes her passion and life-long devotion to the scientific profession; her vision of building the human and physical infrastructure that will benefit the coming generation of Bangladeshi scientists, women scientists in particular, and her untiring contributions to vaccine development, advanced biotechnological therapeutics and critical research that has been saving millions of precious lives”.

“I’m overwhelmed, extremely delighted but also humbled,” Dr Qadri said in a video message shared by the foundation.

Dr Qadri was also cited for her leading role in a mass vaccination effort in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh’s south-eastern district of Cox’s Bazar in recent years that prevented a cholera outbreak. The disease causes acute diarrhoea and spreads through contaminated food and water.

In 2017, about 1 million Rohingyas came to Bangladesh from Myanmar. The Rohingya community living in the overpopulated camp areas had raised concerns regarding the cholera epidemic. However, together with the government, Dr. Qadri has run an immunization program that helped to reduce the prevalence of cholera in the Rohingya refugee camps.

“This success created new hope in the race against cholera,” notes United News of Bangladesh (UNB). “With the help of Dr Qadri’s pioneering work, the world is now moving towards this goal and there may be a day when diseases like cholera can really be forgotten. Hence, Qadri was the right person to win the Magsaysay Award.”

In the current Covid-19 pandemic medical research, particularly the development of vaccines has been politicised. Dr Qadri has worked for over 25 years in developing vaccines for the poor for diseases like cholera and typhoid that kills million every year and her work has not been motivated by making profit.

Development Communications Professor Mohhamad Sahid Ullah argues that her standpoint has always been clear when she says: “I am a scientist from a developing country, I must think for the people where I am born.” Thus, Prof Ullah does not believe that she works for generating profit for companies or for her. “Rather she works for the betterment of the poor who really need low price vaccines” he told IDN.

Ramon Magsaysay Award is Asia’s highest honour and is given to individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the eradication of poverty and the development of the society in Asia. She will be conferred with the award at a ceremony on November 28 at the Ramon Magsaysay Center in Manila, said a press release from the RMAF.

It caps a year in Dr Qadri’s life that saw her life’s work finally receiving the recognition it merits, within the general atmosphere in which scientists—particularly those in the field of life sciences – are being more valued for the invaluable work they do since the onset of the global pandemic.

Prof Ullah believes that Dr Qadri’s work should “inspire scientists and governments from developing countries to dedicate or mobilise their resources and efforts toward serving their people, because the vaccine developed by Dr. Qadri might cost less,” he argues. “You see most of the people from the developing countries are the victims as they have no capacity to afford high-priced vaccines and I trust her invention contributes towards that end (to eradicate the problem).”

In October 2020, Bill Gates described her as a hero for her work in developing the new cheap cholera vaccine, which was done with financial assistance from the Gates Foundation. “For the last 25 years, Dr Qadri has been one of the few people advocating for an affordable vaccine to protect entire communities from cholera epidemics,” Gates said in a You Tube vblog post. “While all of us are focused on the Covid-19 pandemic, it is easy to forget about the world’s longest-running pandemic—cholera,” he added.

Over the last two centuries, the deadly diarrheal disease, which thrives in areas without safe water and sanitation, has killed millions of people. Every year, cholera outbreaks around the globe affect about 4 million people and lead to as many as 130,000 deaths. An affordable, effective, and safe oral cholera vaccine, however, is proving to be a game changer in the fight against this dreaded disease that mainly effects the poor living in dilapidated conditions.

On the occasion of International Day of Women and Girls in Science in February 2020, Dr Qadir was one of five scientists who won the L’Oréal Foundation and UNESCO award for her outstanding work in understanding and preventing infectious diseases affecting children in developing countries, and promoting early diagnosis and vaccination with global health impact.

In an interview with Dhaka Tribune, when asked what motivates her to do this work, she replied: “I have wanted to work on those diseases mostly suffered by Bangladeshi people”. She also added that the main problem she faced while doing the research was access to different facilities. “Appropriate and expensive facilities are available in developed nations, but their problem is they cannot use them, and we do not have them. With the constant change in technologies, it is a challenge for us to deal with this lack of facilities,” she explained.

Dr Qadri is also involved in the Covid-19 pandemic work in Bangladesh in coronavirus testing, vaccine trials, and related research activities. This work is done through the research institute called the Institute for Developing Science and Health Initiative (IDESI), she set up in 2014. A large part of the genome sequencing of some of the coronavirus samples in the country has been done at this center.

Prof Ullah says that Bangladesh has a good number of brilliant biological science female students and “her award of course will be an example of inspiration for scientists in Bangladesh, women scientists in particular, to engage their devotion and efforts to scientific research”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 13 September 2021]

Photo: Dr. Firdausi Qadri. Credit: Dhaka Tribune.

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