The Story of SSI

SSI was inaugurated on 9 September 1902 to secure the production and supply of anti-diphtheria serum to Danish patients. Diphtheria is a severe tonsillitis caused by a bacterium releasing a toxin. Treatment by serum from horses that were vaccinated by the toxin could reduce the mortality by half with patients suffering from diphtheria.

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The establishment of SSI coincided with the international breakthrough within microbiology and immunology. Shortly after, SSI undertook a series of new assignments within the development of other therapeutic antisera, development of vaccines, making of bacteriologic and serologic diagnostic tests, epidemiologic tests and fight against epidemics.

The 1920s and the 1930s

During the 1920s and the 1930s, the fight against tuberculosis was given a high priority. The emergence of tuberculosis was surveyed, and the significance of milk-borne contagion of cow tuberculosis was proved and contributed to the pasteurization of milk. SSI headed the development of tuberculin for diagnostics and the development of the tuberculosis vaccine BCG, which already in the 1930s was used for the vaccination of human beings highly exposed to tuberculosis in e.g. Greenland.

The tuberculosis epidemic, the big milk-borne epidemics, and the typhoid epidemics all led to the establishment of the Epidemiologic Department at SSI, and in the beginning, the department was financed by the Rockefeller Foundation. The mission was to survey the incidence of infectious diseases and participate in the prevention and treatment hereof. The Epidemiologic Department also today plays a leading role in Denmark aiming to ensure advanced control of infectious diseases in close cooperation with the national doctors, diagnostic laboratories and the national and international health authorities.

In 1938, the International Salmonella Centre was started managed by Professor Fritz Kauffmann and worked for international standardization and typing of the more than 2,000 known types of salmonella. Fritz Kauffmann also got the responsibility for the development of sera for the treatment of severe pneumococcal infections. The therapeutic sera were not used much due to the emergence of penicillin but today, SSI is the world’s leading producer of type-specific sera which are used for diagnostics and typing of pneumococcus.

In the 1920s, SSI produced the first blood type serologic reagents and performed blood-typing serological tests for the Danish hospitals. In 1932, the voluntary blood corps of Boy Scout and Girl Guide Associations and the Voluntary Boys’ Brigade was attached to the SSI, and SSI now undertook supply of blood and blood products to the hospitals. For several years until 1990 SSI led one of Denmark’s largest blood banks.

After World War II

SSI was active in the international tuberculosis campaign managed by Chief Physician, Johannes Holm at SSI. 57m children and young people, most in Central Europe, were tested for tuberculosis by tuberculin produced by SSI, 16m were vaccinated against tuberculosis, and the majority received SSI’s BCG vaccine.

This first international mass vaccination became a role model for WHO’s vaccination campaigns – especially in connection with the extinction of smallpox. Since the campaign and until 2017 SSI has been one of the world’s leading producers of BCG vaccine and tuberculin.

International cooperation has always been very important to SSI, and during the 1950s and the 1960s, a series of WHO-reference centres were started at SSI. Especially earlier these centres were very important for the education and training of scholars from the developing countries within laboratory technique and production of vaccines.

The 1950s became the decade of vaccinations

In 1951, the Danish childhood vaccination programme was introduced and comprised offers for vaccination against diphtheria, tetanus, smallpox, and tuberculosis.

The epidemic of infantile paralysis in 1952 and 1953 came as a shock to the Danish population, and at SSI all efforts were used to develop a vaccine. In April 1955, as the first country in Europe, Denmark could offer polio vaccine to children from 7 to 12 years.

98% accepted the offer, and within a few years, infantile paralysis was eradicated in Denmark. Since then, a significant extension of the Danish childhood vaccination programme has been made, and today the programme comprises vaccines for the prevention of nine serious infectious diseases.

In the 1960s and the 1970s

SSI established a series of clinical, microbiological regional departments at the largest hospitals in Denmark. These departments were opened in order to improve the diagnostic service and advice. In the 1980s the counties took over the performance of these departments. However, SSI today still cooperates closely with the local microbiological departments which locally monitor the evidence of infectious diseases and report the results to SSI.

It has been SSI’s mission to optimize the development within diagnostics using the most sensitive and specific techniques, and furthermore secure the necessary diagnostic preparedness in case of epidemics. The AIDS epidemic occurred at a time when many thought that contagious diseases were controlled. As a consequence of the epidemic, SSI managed at record time to open an HIV security laboratory in order to offer the necessary HIV diagnostic tests to the Danish health authorities.

After the turn of the millennium

In connection with the terrorist attack in New York in 2001 SSI was given a role in securing preparedness against biological terrorism. The SARS epidemic, the outbreak of avian flu, and the flu pandemic all gave significant challenges, and SSI played a central role in securing the preparedness towards the new threats.

During the past 100 years mortality caused by infectious diseases has been so much reduced that it might explain the entire increase of the average lifespan of the population at the same period. The main causes are improved social and sanitary conditions, but also prevention through vaccination, improved diagnostics, and antibiotic treatment has had a great impact. Antibiotic treatment alone is estimated to have increased the average lifespan by 10 years.

Nevertheless, infections still cause most sick days in Denmark, and infections are the most frequent cause of death in developing countries. The spectrum of infectious diseases is not stable, but new infectious diseases are diagnosed, and “old” infectious diseases get new significance.

In 2012, SSI was entrusted with the task of collecting and communicating data on population health status as well as data on activities, economy and quality of the public healthcare services. Furthermore, SSI became responsible for coordinating the IT support of public health care as well as the managing and developing of IT systems within the Ministry of Health. In 2015, a considerable reorganisation of the Ministry took place resulting in the establishing of a new board (The Danish Health Data Authority) taking over responsibility for health data and IT.

In March 2014, the Government’s Finance Committee ruled that the production of vaccines was no longer necessary nor profitable at a national level and it was decided to sell the vaccine production. At the same time, it was decided to no longer produce and sell substrates and culture mediums, and SSI Diagnostics in Hillerød was therefore also to be sold. In March 2016, the Ministry of Health signed an agreement with the Swedish equity fund Adelis Equity to sell SSI Diagnostics transferring ownership on 1 October 2016. In June 2016, an agreement was reached between the Ministry of Health, Statens Serum Institut, and AJ Vaccines Holding A/S to sell SSI’s vaccine production business. The transfer of ownership to AJ Vaccines Holding A/S took place on 16 January 2017.

Most recently, SSI's assignments have been expanded to also involve TestCenter Denmark, which was established due to COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, and The Danish Veterinary Consortium, which was established in 2017 as a consequence of being granted the contract for public sector services within the veterinary area by the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food.

During the first more than 100 years, SSI has proved its justification and viability and has had the capacity to undertake new vital assignments. SSI has only been able to do so because SSI is based on a strong research foundation. Today, SSI is one of Denmark’s largest research institutes.