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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 from March 2020.  

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

In anticipation of a cure and vaccine, it’s vital to test patients for coronavirus as smoothly 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 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 non-stop 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.  

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.  

The list of tech initiatives and solutions doesn’t end there, though. TechVentures – an alliance of tech companies co-managed by Henri Jacobs, an entrepreneur from Ghent (Flanders) – has launched 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. “The White House has just called on the tech community to help machines read and analyze 29,000 scientific articles,” Jacobs adds. “So, I expect initiatives to be launched that map out and test for coronavirus infections through smartphone apps.”  

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.  

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, Antwerp University and The Guardian.
24 March 2020

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