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Honored Bangladeshi scientist has saved millions of lives

Dr. Firdausi Qadri has worked for decades in the development of affordable vaccines for cholera and typhoid

Honored Bangladeshi scientist has saved millions of lives

Dr. Firdausi Qadri, a Bangladeshi scientist and winner of a 2021 Ramon Magsaysay Award, is credited with saving millions of lives by developing affordable vaccines. (Photo: Ramon Magsaysay Foundation)

The deadly Covid-19 pandemic has turned the spotlight on the important role of science in saving lives in an age when science is often politicized and manipulated to hurt humanity.

Dr. Firdausi Qadri, 70, a prominent Bangladeshi scientist and a winner of this year’s prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, has proved once again how science can play a vital role in saving lives and improving quality of life.

She was recognized for “her passion and lifelong 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.”

Qadri is the 12th Bangladesh-based individual to win an award dubbed the Asian Nobel Prize. The list includes two prominent Catholics — the late American Holy Cross priest Father Richard William Timm, who was honored in 1987 for International Understanding, and Angela Gomes, a Catholic woman who received the honor in 1999 for Community Leadership.

Following the announcement of the 2021 winners on Aug. 30, Qadri sent a video message to the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation to share her joy. “I’m overwhelmed, extremely delighted but also humbled,” she said. 

Qadri was born on March 31, 1951, in a middle-class Muslim family that encouraged girls to get education and have a career. That was against the conservative social and religious scenario of the time when families and societies mostly discouraged girls from going to school but instead prepared them to look after their family and children after marriage.

She dedicated herself to a challenging mission to battle cholera and typhoid, which were major diseases in Bangladesh and many Asian and African countries

She obtained bachelor of science and master of science degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Dhaka in 1975 and 1977 respectively. She then studied biochemistry/immunology at the University of Liverpool in England and obtained a doctoral degree in 1980.

A mother of three, Qadri initially taught at a Bangladesh university and in 1988 she joined the Dhaka-based International Center for Diarrheal Diseases and Research, Bangladesh (ICDDRB). As the lead scientist and head of its Mucosal Immunology and Vaccinology Unit, she focused on communicable diseases, immunology, vaccine development and clinical trials.

She dedicated herself to a challenging mission to battle cholera and typhoid, which were major diseases in Bangladesh and many Asian and African countries due to poor access to safe water, sanitation, education and medical care.

She played a key role in the development of a more affordable oral cholera vaccine (OCV) and the typhoid conjugate vaccine (Vi-TCV) for adults, children and even infants.

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Under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), she led a team of experts in the 2017-20 OCV mass vaccination of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Cox's Bazar district in Bangladesh, thus preventing a mass cholera outbreak in the world’s largest refugee camp.

In 2020, she helped facilitate the OCV vaccination of 1.2 million people in six high-risk districts of Dhaka. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, she was involved in vaccine trials and Covid-19 testing and research in Bangladesh.

In 2014, Qadri founded the Institute for Developing Science and Health Initiatives (ideSHi) that aims to train and mentor young scientists and inspire them by putting them in contact with well-known scientists in other countries. But building local capability is her greater goal. She is focused on upgrading laboratories so that Bangladeshi scientists will not have to go abroad because of a lack of facilities.

While her typhoid and cholera vaccines are already approved in Bangladesh and other countries, she is currently working on E. coli diarrhea vaccine and is interested in Covid-19 vaccine development.

Qadri believes that finding answers to the health problems in her country will benefit other countries as well. For more than four decades, she has worked in Bangladesh as a scientist and she still does not think of retiring. She wants to develop ideSHi further as her greater goal is to develop local capability.

“I want it to be bigger in the coming years and self-supporting in the future, less dependent on international funding. It should carry out research at the highest level and have a good number of scientists who will carry out this work. I am looking at that in the future,” she once said.

Her contributions to science and research have brought her local and global recognition

The institute currently conducts biomedical research and runs training courses and a testing center. It has become a hub of scientific activity by local and visiting scientists in Bangladesh.

Qadri says she “dreams of building in Bangladesh the human and technical infrastructure for research in health science.”

She has been involved in various international scientific bodies including the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Technology Bank for the Least Developed Countries and the American Society for Microbiology.

Her contributions to science and research have brought her local and global recognition.

In 2012, she was awarded the Christophe & Rodolphe Mérieux Foundation Prize from the French Academy of Sciences; she won a fellowship from the American Academy of Microbiology in 2014; the Bill Gates Award, Hero in the Field Against the World’s Longest Running Pandemic (cholera) in 2020; and the L'Oréal-UNESCO International Awards 2020 for Women in Science.

She used the prize money from the Christophe & Rodolphe Mérieux Foundation Prize to set up ideSHi in 2014.

Recognizing her role in developing affordable vaccines against cholera that saved millions of lives, American tech guru and philanthropist Bill Gates hailed Qadri as a “hero” whose vaccine was a game-changer in the fight against this oft-forgotten but life-threatening disease.

This article uses materials from Ramon Magsaysay Foundation

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