PHNOM PENH – – The Institut Pasteur du Cambodge, widely known for its research units and vaccination centers, has been playing an important role in supporting the healthcare system in Cambodia. In addition to work conducted at its biomedical laboratories and laboratories specializing in environmental and food-safety issues, the institution has supported Cambodia’s efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Laurence Baril, director of the Institut Pasteur du Cambodge, recently met with Thmey Thmey.
Thmey Thmey: Would you tell us about the role and mission of the Pasteur Institute in Cambodia?
Laurent Baril: The Institut Pasteur du Cambodge (IPC) is a Cambodian non-profit institution created in 1953 and reopened in 1992. The IPC is one of the very active members of the Institut Pasteur International Network [that includes] 32 institutions around the world. Today, the IPC is known to the Cambodian public for its very involved role in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Jan. 25, 2021, the IPC had performed more than 200,000 PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests for the detection of COVID-19.
More generally speaking, the IPC is certainly known to many for its vaccination centers—vaccination against rabies for example—its medical biology laboratory and its laboratory for environmental and food safety.
But the main mission of the IPC is to be a research center. In the course of its [programs], the IPC also trains and benefits from high level Cambodian researchers.
Thmey Thmey: The IPC’s mission has been highlighted during the current health crisis. Its laboratory has been named as a Global Reference Laboratory Network for COVID-19 by the World Health Organization (WHO). What does that mean to you?
Laurent Baril: The IPC has been carrying out life science and health research on emerging and endemic infectious diseases for many years. Our Virology Unit was able to be rapidly equipped for diagnosis during the first SARS epidemic in 2003, the avian flu in 2008 and many other major recent emerging pathogens. In January 2020, thanks to their efficient network and their preparedness, the scientists at IPC were able to respond to the demand from the Ministry of Health for new SARS diagnostic (COVID-19). This is a really important task. Again, let me underline that by mid-January 2021, we had done more than 200,000 PCR tests.
The IPC was selected by WHO as a member of the Global Reference Laboratory Network for COVID-19 thanks to our capacity to respond quickly to the global pandemic, to diagnose the first cases in Cambodia, to transfer diagnosis techniques to Lao PDR and to the Cambodian National Laboratory for Public Health, to test the passengers of the Westerdam cruise ship [in February 2020], and to participate in multiple efforts to improve COVID-19 diagnosis. It is an important recognition for the IPC and for Cambodia.
The letter sent to us in November  by Samdech Techo Hun Sen was a very important mark of recognition for the IPC team.
Thmey Thmey: What is the performance of the COVID-19 tests at the IPC?
Laurent Baril: As a WHO Global Referral Laboratory for COVID-19, the IPC works with the highest standard RT-PCR [Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction] tests. This is very important. We are all convinced that in Cambodia, RT-PCR will remain the best technique for direct diagnosis in the upcoming months.
Thmey Thmey: What are the challenges facing the IPC?
Laurent Baril: One of the main challenges is the workload. We have been working every day, often at night, for COVID-19 RT-PCR tests since February 2020. I take this opportunity to thank all our staff members for their commitment, professionalism and solidarity.
We continued our research and surveillance work on other pathogens causing other diseases—for instance dengue, chikungunya and the H3N2 flu epidemic—while taking charge of a great extra load of work due to COVID-19. This is another challenge.
I hope that, after the COVID-19 crisis, we will all keep in mind the importance of having high-level laboratory capacities and expertise on human and animal emerging infectious pathogens. This is a long-term investment both in human resources and equipment that is crucial for the well-being of the Cambodian population.
Thmey Thmey: Let’s talk now about the collaboration of the IPC with other institutions, especially with France.
Laurent Baril: The IPC governance is based on an agreement between the Royal Cambodian Government and the Institut Pasteur (Paris, France).
The French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs ranks among the very first of our financial partners.
Therefore, the IPC contributes to French-Cambodian cooperation, which is particularly involved in the field of health. We work in close collaboration with the Institute for Research for Development (IRD) and the Centre for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development (CIRAD), as well as the French Development Agency (AFD).
However, we are a Cambodian institution working under the auspices of the Ministry of Health and we work closely with the other Cambodian institutions such as the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), the University of Health Sciences, the National Institute of Public Health and many more departments at the Ministry of Health.
We are indeed completely open to international cooperation. We work closely with multinational institutions such as WHO and FAO [United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization]. Thirty-two researchers or post-doctoral fellows represent 10 nationalities in our team. We have projects funded by Germany, the US, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the European Union, etc.
Our collaborative mindset, combined with our international visibility, is key to our activities.
Over the years, more and more Cambodian scientists have taken leadership positions within the IPC. Today the IPC deputy director is a senior epidemiologist and public health specialist, Dr. Ly Sowath, and the head of the Virology Unit is Dr. Duong Veasna, to name a few. They are extremely well trained and brilliant. This is a source of great pride for the IPC.
Thmey Thmey: Is it correct to say that the Institut Pasteur du Cambodge is a French organization?
Laurent Baril: France has always been a strong partner providing human resources, funding research projects and providing organizational expertise. The French cooperation supports several universities and institutions in Cambodia [and] IPC is one of them. During the COVID-19 crisis, France, through the French Development Agency demonstrated its support to Cambodia via increased financial support to the IPC.
However, the IPC remains a Cambodian institution open to international cooperation. In the near future, as Asia-Pacific countries are strengthening their cooperation in many areas, we would like to develop regional scientific collaborations with Australia, Japan, South Korea and Singapore for instance. We have a close relationship with the other institutes in the Institut Pasteur International Network, from those based in Iran to New Caledonia—10 in total in the region—and we share strong professional values with them.
Thmey Thmey: For many Cambodians, the Institut Pasteur du Cambodge is just a vaccination center and a medical analysis laboratory. Yet it plays an active role in research on emerging infectious diseases, doesn’t it?
Laurent Baril: Indeed, we deliver direct important services to the public, to hospitals and to private companies through our international vaccination center, our three rabies prevention centers (Battambang, Kampong Cham and Phnom Penh), our Medical Biology Laboratory (accredited ISO 15189) and Laboratory for Environmental and Food Safety.
Beyond those services, the IPC is an institution dedicated to research. Nearly 300 persons are currently working at our main campus in Phnom Penh and at the two rabies prevention centers in Kampong Cham and Battambang provinces, and around 100 Cambodian students per year join the team for internships./Sovann