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Fighting coronavirus together – with help from Flanders

“A time of crisis is not just a time of anxiety and worry,” former Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu once said. “It gives a chance, an opportunity.” As entire nations are going on lockdown, this quote could easily be the mantra of the dedicated people working around the clock to develop the knowhow, tools and solutions needed to combat the coronavirus outbreak. Organizations and research facilities from Flanders are also on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. Below are some of the most prominent, promising and heartwarming stories that highlight how togetherness saves the day.  

HEALTHCARE AND MEDICINE RELATED LINE ICONS PATTERN DESIGN

Biopharma flagships in search of a cure and vaccine

One of the most precious resources in any crisis is time, especially in the face of a pandemic. While additional time can’t be fabricated, Flanders’ biopharmaceutical industry has the next best thing: one of the world’s fastest clinical trial approval systems. What’s more, as Flanders is home to production sites and headquarters of virtually every major pharma firm in the world, it’s only obvious that some industry leaders are calling on the region’s expertise as they work on treatments and vaccines.  

“Typically, only around one in ten experimental vaccines and treatments make it to regulatory approval,” states sector federation pharma.be in its e-newsletter. “So, the more companies that try to develop a vaccine, the greater the chances of success.” To speed up this process even more, the local pharmaceutical industry and the federal government have agreed to further accelerate the procedures for starting clinical trials. Moreover, testing capacity has been scaled up, making it possible for labs of pharma companies to test COVID-19 patents in Belgium and Flanders as well.

One pharmaceutical firm that’s currently putting its shoulder to the wheel is Johnson & Johnson, former winner of Flanders Investment & Trade’s Lifetime Achievement Trophy honoring decades of investment in Flanders. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), the American pharma giant partnered up with the Rega Institute for Medical Research of KU Leuven, one of Flanders’ five universities and Europe’s most innovative. Together, they began their search for new or existing compounds with antiviral activity against COVID-19 that could help bring immediate relief to the outbreak. 

But the pharma firm’s commitment didn’t end there. On 31 March 2020, Johnson & Johnson announced that it had reached a breakthrough in another essential project: the race for a coronavirus vaccine. The company’s candidate vaccine was developed at a Dutch site of Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutica, which has been headquartered in Flanders since 1953. “This year, we will produce 100 to 300 million vaccines, and afterwards up to 1 billion,” explains Chief Scientific Officer Paul Stoffels, one of Flanders’ leading pharma specialists.

In the meantime, it remains vital to make the process of testing patients for coronavirus as smooth as possible. To speed up the process, British life sciences firm LGC has started working with UgenTec, a scale-up from Flanders that develops lab software. “With our software, one test can be done in minutes, without the chance of human error,” explains COO Wouter Uten. “Labs can thus process large volumes without having to call in extra staff. The data processed by our software is collected anonymously in a central database and offers vital insights into how and where the virus is spreading.” 

Such ‘borderless’ collaboration is the path toward halting the coronavirus outbreak. After all, “in a time of crisis, the peoples of the world must rush to get to know each other,” as Latin American poet José Martí wrote. This credo rings more than true at the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries & Associations (EFPIA). Headquartered in Brussels, the capital of both Belgium and Flanders, EFPIA has now reached out to the European Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI). Together, they are working on potential actions to support collaborative research programs to fast-track the development of therapeutics even more.  

Academics to the rescue at VIB, VUB and UAntwerpen

One of the driving forces in the race towards finding a cure and creating a vaccine is the academic and research community. In this context, VIB – Flanders’ strategic research center for biotech and life sciences – is achieving major breakthroughs. A research team at the VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology, headed by professor of virology Xavier Saelens, has discovered a unique antibody capable of preventing the virus that causes COVID-19 from binding to human cells. The antibody was developed together with two US research groups. “This is an important step forward in the fight against the disease,” says Saelens. Furthermore, the team established that the antibody can neutralize a lab variant of the coronavirus, which could lead to the development of an antiviral drug.  

Another leading academic institute from Flanders that’s upping the ante in fighting the coronavirus is UAntwerpen, the University of Antwerp. The institute has been chosen to lead a new EU taskforce called ‘Rapid European COVID-19 Emergency Research Response’ (RECOVER). The aim? To provide scientific knowledge that can be used by clinical experts, health authorities and policy makers to protect public health. “We are collaborating nonstop with our European and Chinese partners to deepen our knowledge of this disease and thus save lives,” comments RECOVER coordinator and UAntwerpen professor Herman Goossens.

“Furthermore,” Goossens continues, “we are currently carrying out a large-scale experiment that includes testing four possible treatments on 3,200 coronavirus-infected patients in various European countries. We hope to draw preliminary conclusions in a few weeks’ time, as soon as we have reached the milestone of 100 tested patients. This could allow us to discern differences in effectiveness between the different treatments, which would help steer doctors all over the world in the right direction. I'm optimistic: things have gone very fast in the last few days.”

Another important academic research route is being explored by the Ghent University hospital and Flanders’ life sciences research center VIB. Together, the two institutes are investigating the use of a medicine called Leukine® for the treatment of lung problems caused by COVID-19. “Patients with COVID-19 who develop acute respiratory problems do not have many treatment options, leading to an increased mortality risk,” says Bart Lambrecht, principal investigator for the clinical trial. “We quickly started this study with Leukine® because it could theoretically produce important effects in terms of protecting people against viruses, boosting the immune system and promoting recovery mechanisms within patients’ lungs.”

In addition to healthcare and biotech, other academic fields are also joining the fight against COVID-19. For instance, at the FabLab of VUB, Flanders’ third-largest university, a team of engineers, undergraduate students and PhD students started building and testing a new artificial respiration device in the face of possible shortages. Just a few weeks later, VUB and its partners Audi Brussels and Flanders Make, announced that the new device is ready to be tested and that the acquired knowhow will be shared internationally via open sources. 
For their ventilator prototype, the team started from a design created by MIT. To adapt it to the needs of COVID-19 patients, they extended it with sensors based on specifications from researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the university hospital of Brussels (UZ Brussel). Led by Mark Runacres, professor of flow mechanics and head of FabLab Brussels, the engineers built the first prototype in a matter of days. “Speed is of great importance,” Runacres points out. “Doctors don’t have time right now to exchange possible ideas with engineers. So, our FabLab team set out to build instead of talk.” 

The same mentality applies to the twelve product developers of the Antwerp Design Factory, which is part of the University of Antwerp (UAntwerpen). Together with industrial partners, they set up an emergency unit for the production of face masks and other protective equipment for healthcare workers during the coronavirus crisis. “Our team is working on the project seven days a week, with the full support of the university,” says Jouke Verlinden, cofounder of the Antwerp Design Factory. “To make sure the equipment meets the most stringent criteria, we are in close contact with the Federal Agency for Medicines and Health Products. If necessary, we aim for a production capacity of 10,000 masks per week.”  

Technological answers to medical challenges

As health and care professionals come under increasingly heavy COVID-19 pressure, their cries of distress have triggered numerous technological entrepreneurs to propose new products and solutions. Flanders-based additive manufacturing  specialist Materialise, for example, has distributed a free design for a 3D-printed door opener that helps reduce the transmission of the coronavirus. The crafty invention can be mounted on top of a classic door handle, making it easier for people to open and close doors with their forearms instead of their hands.  

Another Flanders-based company, medtech firm MedicCleanAir from Antwerp, is currently shipping its highly specialized medical isolation rooms and air purification solutions worldwide. “Due to the coronavirus outbreak, it’s crucial for hospitals with isolated infected patients to keep the air in their environments safe and clean,” explains managing director Hendrik Van Passel on his company website. MedicCleanAir has developed the equipment to do just that. In nearly all cases, it reduces the number of airborne infections in hospitals to zero. The units are mobile or semi-mobile, so hospitals do not have to make any building alterations to install them. This is not only cost-saving but also time-saving: an isolation room can be set up in one day. 

ElmediX, a former spin-off of the University of Antwerp, proposes an additional medtech solution to stop the spread of the coronavirus: intensive heat treatments of corona patients. “Viruses are heat sensitive,” says Professor John-Paul Bogers, the driving force behind ElmediX. “By heating a patient’s body in a controlled manner up to 41.5 °C during a three-hour process, we may be able to switch off the virus particles more quickly – the particles fall apart, so to speak. In addition, the viral antigens that are released in the process boost the immune system. They act as a kind of natural self-vaccination and can provide long-term protection.”

The list of tech initiatives and solutions doesn’t end there, though. To bring together as many innovative start-ups and ideas as possible, a public platform and online hackathon – called ‘Hack The Crisis’ – were launched in Belgium and Flanders, following similar initiatives elsewhere in Europe. From 27 to 29 March, various teams competed to come up with healthcare, education, business continuity, logistics and well-being solutions related to the COVID-19 outbreak. A total of 614 people from 7 different time zones registered for the hackathon, 250 of which went on to the final round. They then formed 36 teams and were given 48 hours to work out a concrete solution for a specific challenge, with the assistance of various mentors.

Meanwhile, TechVentures – an alliance of tech companies co-managed by Henri Jacobs, an entrepreneur from Ghent (Flanders) – also decided to bring innovators together by launching a new CovTech cluster, where tech players can share their COVID-19 initiatives such as telehealth solutions and 3D-printed ventilators. “In the short term, these will certainly include an increasing number of AI and big data applications that seek to unravel unanswered questions about the virus. I expect a lot of initiatives to be launched that map out and test for coronavirus infections through smartphone apps,” Jacobs explains.

But smartphone apps also can help reduce contamination in overcrowded stores and mitigate the effects of panic buying. To do so, a company from Flanders, called Accurat, launched the Shop Safe application. “This ‘Waze for stores’ shows users how busy local supermarkets are through color-coding,” says Accurat CEO Bart Muskala. “Users can share an estimate of the hustle and bustle at their local supermarkets and signal which products are limited or no longer in stock. Meanwhile, shop staff members can use Shop Safe to report in real time when the shelves have been replenished.”   

Creativity saves the day

The coronavirus outbreak doesn’t just affect people who fall ill and the professionals taking care of them and trying to develop a cure; it also touches the regular lives of millions of other individuals and families. Citizens across the globe are urged or obligated to stay inside their homes. To make this situation less of a nuisance and activate people in the fight against the virus, creative entrepreneurs are launching initiatives in domains as diverse as digitalgaming and animationtextiles and more.  

Here are just a few of the many examples from Flanders’ creative industry:  

  • the Corona Thinktank – a platform for helping people create and share home-made face masks.  

  • Di-stence – developed by Edmire, an industrial design agency from Antwerp, this stencil helps essential goods retailers indicate the space required for people to keep enough distance and prevent the coronavirus from spreading further.  

  • the Play it Safe coronavirus prevention game – which was co-developed by the University College of West-Vlaanderen, Flanders’ digital research center imec and the city of Kortrijk.  

  • the Lockdown Games – a game, developed by Ghent-based company Das Box, where families can compete with one another to ease the burden of social confinement and compensate for the loss of school days.  

Meanwhile, Natan – a fashion house from Brussels, headed by famous designer Edouard Vermeulen – has decided to stitch face masks in its sewing workshops, instead of sewing outfits for queens such as Mathilde of Belgium and Máxima of the Netherlands. A similar story unravels in the workshops of Flanders-based lingerie producer Van De Velde, where seamsters also started sewing face masks instead of bras and panties. In addition, the stitchers at Destelbergen-based fashion label Xandres spontaneously offered to do the same instead of making clothing alterations. The face masks are distributed to hospitals across the region.

Face masks – testing, testing! 

  • To help avoid shortages, various other companies and organizations in Flanders decided to start producing FFP face masks – incl. Medimundi (a consortium launched by card and board games producer Cartamundi and the University of Antwerp), safety clothes manufacturer Van Heurck and automotive upholstery specialist ECA.  
  • As a result, the need for quality control and certification increased significantly. That’s why VITO, one of Flanders’ strategic research centers, rapidly expanded its test infrastructure. “To comply with European standards, face masks need to pass various tests,” says program manager Gert Otten. “Firstly, we check whether they stop virus particles effectively, using aerosol particles and a dummy head wearing a mask. Other checks include testing material strength, practical usability, etc.” 

Stay put, stay safe!

As the coronavirus-COVID19 crisis continues to develop worldwide and governments as well as businesses take action, one thing remains crystal clear: we’re all in this together, including Flanders’ public, private and academic sector. What matters most is to stay positive, safe and united – and, above all, to stay healthy.  

In this context, we would like to ensure you that Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT) is in good shape: our colleagues are fully equipped to tackle any challenges ahead and answer any questions you may have, wherever you are in the world.  

Reported by
The content of this article is based on information published on the websites of Agoria, Flanders DC, pharma.be, VIB, UAntwerpen, De Tijd, Het Nieuwsblad and The Guardian.
6 April 2020

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