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“I am driven by the desire to develop a product that can be sold worldwide”

Ranked number one in the world by the WHO in diarrhoea research and soon in phase III studies for its vaccine candidate – Scandinavian Biopharma is rushing forward in the pursuit of the world’s first ETEC vaccine. Meet the company’s CEO Björn Sjöstrand.

Björn Sjöstrand had just returned from the VASE conference in Washington when Life Science Sweden meet him at Scandinavian Biopharma’s lab in Solna. The conference, which focuses on shigella and ETEC, brings together hundreds of researchers and representatives from the pharmaceutical industry and authorities from around the world.

Behind the conference is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the organiser is PATH – a global health organisation that has also been one of Scandinavian Biopharma’s largest financiers since day one. Scandinavian Biopharma has also been a partner of the Gates Foundation, which is rather unusual, according to Björn Sjöstrand. 

– Typically, large global companies with 10,000 employees or more become partners. We are 35 people in our company, but we were fewer than 10 when we became partners, says Björn Sjöstrand. 

According to him, it is because you have greater credibility if you can demonstrate that you can take products from research and development to global launch. Björn Sjöstrand has done just that with another vaccine. 

Scandinavian Biopharma is developing the world’s first vaccine against ETEC – one for travellers and one for children in low- and middle-income countries. Approximately 400 million children in the world are adversely affected by diarrhoeal disease, and approximately 35 million travellers get tourist diarrhoea every year. A phase III study is planned for the traveller product at the end of next year. The reason this product is moving faster with this indicator is due to the fact that this vaccine does not have to provide protection for as long as the vaccine for children. 

– As a traveller, you need to be protected during your trip and then you need to top up before the next trip. 

– Whereas, if you want to know how well the vaccine protects during the first years of life when children are most exposed, then the studies need to be longer to be able to show a longer protective effect. The Phase III study for children will hopefully start in 2024.

The protection tested in children in the phase II study in The Gambia lasts up to 2 years and a minimum of 15 months, and the children vaccinated are aged between 6 and 18 months. The children are vaccinated at this age because the most critical period to be vaccinated is after breastfeeding when most children get diarrhoea caused by ETEC.

When asked why Björn and his company are focusing on vaccines against ETEC, he replies that it is because there is a desperate need for a vaccine, but none is available. 

–It’s a huge problem. Diarrhoea doesn’t just ruin your holiday – some of those affected get chronic stomach and intestinal diseases such as IBS. However, if you look at the great need in low- and middle-income countries, ETEC is one of the pathogens that kills the most children under the age of five. 

– However, there is an iceberg that we don’t see, which is all the problems that ETEC or diarrhoeal diseases cause by children being underdeveloped. Therefore, it was natural for us to choose this field. 

In 2020, during the WHO’s Product Development for Vaccines Advisory Committee Meeting, an independent group of researchers ranked Scandinavian Biopharma’s vaccine against ETEC as the most advanced vaccine candidate against ETEC in the world. 

What does this mean for the company? 

– It’s motivating to work on a project that can make a huge difference. When the WHO calls us a leader, it’s a good thing. There is a sense of pride in that too, of course. Receiving such recognition is positive and shows us that we are on the right track because developing a new vaccine or medicine is a very long development process.

What drives you as CEO? 

– Like most other people, I want to make a difference, but I am also driven by the desire to develop a product that can be sold worldwide. Some say it cannot be done, but I know it can because I have a background as CEO of SBL Vaccin, today Valneva, which developed the cholera vaccine Dukoral. 

Scandinavian Biopharma is a Swedish company, but the vaccine will not be produced in Sweden. A commercial product site has already been selected outside Europe. Initially, the capacity is 10 million doses, but the possibility exists to scale up when childhood vaccination programs start around the world. 

– Regrettably, we simply must have a production facility with a sufficiently large capacity. We will evaluate whether we can place part of the production in Sweden. After all, we are a Swedish company, and all decisions are made here. 

The company also has a distribution operation, which provides security, according to Björn Sjöstrand. Vaccines and immunoglobulins are sold through this operation. In November, for example, the company entered into a commercial collaboration with Novavax for the Covid vaccine Nuvaxovid. However, apart from PATH, most of the funding come from EU Horizon 2020, which has provided approximately a quarter of a billion Swedish kronor, and also from the US Army.

BJÖRN SJÖSTRAND

Age: 55. 

Lives: Bromma, Sweden. 

Family: Married and three adult children. 

Education: Bachelor of Economics. 

Career: Former CEO of both Swedish and international companies. Co-founder of Scandinavian Biopharma and also chairman of Intervacc and Sprint Bioscience. 

Interests: Outdoor life. 

Last book read: My cousin Kristina Ohlsson’s book Icebreaker.

Artikeln är en del av vårt tema om News in English.

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