[INTERVIEW] Seegene's quantum leap is far from over as producer of reliable diagnostic kits

By Lim Chang-won Posted : October 30, 2020, 12:41 Updated : November 2, 2020, 08:29

Seegene vice president Lee Min-cheol [Photograph by Yoo Dae-gil]

SEOUL -- Seegene, known as a producer of reliable in vitro diagnostic devices,  has taken away huge benefits from a COVID-19 pandemic to become one of the most-watched companies in South Korea's stock market for its quantum leap this year. In preparation for a post-pandemic era, the company still hopes to maintain growth with differentiated multi-diagnosis technologies.

Seegene was among South Korean companies that quickly produced diagnostic kits used widely for a national battle to sort out patients infected with COVID-19. It now provides about 70 percent of diagnostic kits required in South Korea while spearheading the overseas shipment of home-made kits. 

Data from the state-run Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI) showed that exports of South Korea's medical and health-related products including biosimilars, diagnostic kits and disinfectants rose 26.7 percent on-year to $9.6 billion in the first half of this year. The global market for COVID-19 diagnostic kits is expected to reach $44.4 billion by the end of this year, according to Market Study Report, a global market research firm.

If the pandemic subsides, the demand for diagnostic kits will inevitably decrease. However, Seegene thinks it can secure new demands by proving its competitive edge in accuracy and highlighting differentiated multi-diagnosis technologies. For its goal, Seegene would increase the number of researchers from 113 as of the end of 2019 to 300.

"There are predictions that the development of treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 will reduce the demand for diagnosis, but I don't think so. For proper treatment, the accurate diagnosis must be carried out first," Lee Min-cheol, a vice president in charge of Seegene Institute of Life Sciences, said in an interview with Aju Business Daily.

Lee, who once headed the Korean Society of Pathologists and Chonnam National University Medical School, was optimistic, saying his company would focus on the development of simultaneous inspection products. "We will launch a diagnostic product that adds specifications to the existing diagnostic kit and can meet various uses or demands."

[Yonhap Photo]

The goal is to make a diagnostic kit in life. "If you live with a new infectious disease such as COVID-19, there should be an environment where you can easily check at home and see results quickly," Lee said. "Although it is still difficult to take samples from home with a diagnostic kit and send them to the examination center in South Korea, it is possible in the United States, and we are developing such a rapid diagnostic kit."

Seegene was the first mover to jump into the development of diagnostic kits and receive quick emergency approval in South Korea when the World Health Organization released information on test reagents in January. "When COVID-19 spread to China late last year, Seegene decided that the virus would spread to South Korea in the near future," Lee said.

In the first half of this year, Seegene's sales tripled from a year ago to 356.6 billion won ($316 million), with net profit reaching 165.3 billion won. The market capitalization soared from about 800 billion won at the end of 2019 to about 7 trillion won. "Seegene's ability to play an active part in COVID-19 infection came from its 20-year-old diagnostic infrastructure combined with IT and biotechnologies," Lee said, attributing Seegene's dramatic growth to a fully automated system and artificial intelligence technology.

"Our rapid development and response were made possible thanks to data, know-how and AI algorithms that have been accumulated in developing various gene diagnostic reagents for the past 20 years. We solved the design of diagnostic reagents in a matter of hours that would have taken months."

Seegene has upgraded its technology to detect rapid mutations of the novel coronaviurs. "The need to accurately distinguish flu and cold symptoms, as well as COVID-19, has increased around the world," Lee said, adding his company has developed a new model for simultaneous diagnosis approved in Europe.

Lee said that a network of inspection infrastructure built around the world played a part in Seegene's preemptive response. "When there is a surge in the number of confirmed patients, quick bulk testing is important, and we have already built it all over the world to provide an environment where diagnosis can be made with our products."

(This story was based on an interview conducted by Aju Business Daily reporter Kim Tae-rim)

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