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.