Experts worry that firing of director could impact the Butantan Institute's dengue vaccine efforts.

CAMILLA CARVALHO/INSTITUTO BUTANTAN

Brazil’s dengue vaccine in jeopardy

SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL—A promising dengue vaccine faces an uncertain future in Brazil, scientists say, after the dismissal of a prominent immunologist who has been overseeing clinical trials of the preparation here.  

Last week, the São Paulo state government removed Jorge Kalil as director of the Butantan Institute, following accusations of administrative wrongdoing leveled against him by a former colleague. Announcing Kalil’s dismissal on 21 February, Governor Geraldo Alckmin praised him as a “great scientist” and said he wished he would continue to lead Butantan’s dengue vaccine program. Kalil told ScienceInsider he will decline that invitation. He denies the accusations against him and says it’s impossible to continue leading the vaccine program from outside the institute. “This is not an isolated project; it’s something that requires a coordinated effort by the entire institution,” he says. “I can’t accept something like this.”

Scientists here and abroad have protested Kalil’s dismissal. Butantan researchers and staff staged protests last week, and the institute’s influenza vaccine factory shut down for a half day on Friday, demanding his return. In a 23 February letter to Governor Alckmin, Anna Durbin of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, who led the initial clinical trials of the vaccine, wrote that the dengue vaccine program made “tremendous progress” under Kalil, and that this momentum may be “reversed by the removal of his leadership of the Butantan Institute.”

The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) developed the early version of the TV003 vaccine—designed to protect against all four serotypes of the dengue virus—and sponsored the initial clinical trials, which were completed in 2012. NIAID then licensed the preparation to the Butantan Institute, a state-owned biomedical research and vaccine production facility here, to further develop the vaccine and conduct clinical trials in Brazil, where dengue fever is an endemic threat. The Butantan-produced vaccine is now being tested at 14 institutions across the country, in a $100 million, phase III randomized trial sponsored by Brazil’s federal government.

Stephen Whitehead, a senior associate scientist at NIAID who led development of the vaccine’s attenuated viruses, also wrote to Alckmin, arguing that Kalil’s leadership skills were “essential” to the program’s continuation and that his removal from Butantan could have “dire public health consequences for the State of São Paulo and Brazil.” “His ability to solicit support for sound scientific endeavors, develop the framework for their realization, and reach out for international partners is indispensable for the success and credibility of the institute,” Whitehead wrote.

Brazilian scientific organizations have also lobbied on Kalil’s behalf. In a public letter to Alckmin released on 22 February, the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science and the Brazilian and São Paulo academies of sciences ask that “apparent political conflicts of interest involved in this crisis do not interrupt projects that are so relevant to Brazil and the world”.

In statements to the press, the São Paulo State Health Secretariat stated that Kalil was fired because of “grave administrative problems” detected at the institute during this tenure—he has been director since 2011—and for not respecting hierarchy.

Kalil believes his removal resulted from personal and political motivations. He says he will refocus now on his other appointments at the University of São Paulo’s Medical School and Heart Institute, where he is a senior professor of immunology.

Alckmin has appointed Dimas Tadeu Covas, a professor of hematology at the University of São Paulo’s Ribeirão Preto Medical School, as Butantan’s new director. “I do hope the person selected to lead the dengue vaccine program understands the immense effort it takes to see a vaccine through,” Durbin wrote in an email to ScienceInsider.

*Update, 3 March, 2:39 p.m.: In a 2 March statement, the Health Secretariat of the São Paulo state government declared that “the development of the tetravalent dengue vaccine and other research projects of the [Butantan] Institute will not be affected by the exit of professor Jorge Kalil.” It further stated that “Butantan will remain strong as an international center of excellence in science, culture and public health.