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Flanders’ future-proof approach to global health threats

“The world will never be the same again, but we can try to make it better.” With these words, Minister-President of Flanders Jan Jambon shared his optimism about the post-COVID future during a health seminar at Expo 2020 Dubai. There, a range of distinguished life sciences experts from Flanders gathered to debate the current approach of the coronavirus pandemic and the lessons learned. It turns out, there is plenty to be hopeful about. Here’s a summary of the highlights and how Flanders’ life sciences & health ecosystem can help change the tide. Can’t wait to check out the ecosystem after reading this article? Head to the Flanders360 platform to discover 300+ successful companies, universities, R&D centers, incubators and other players.

The fact that Expo 2020 Dubai can take place amid a global pandemic – albeit 1 year later than planned – is quite unique. Not only does it prove the effectiveness of the current vaccination programs, but it’s also the result of a concerted effort to fight the global health crisis. Both Flanders and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) made a great contribution to this. Looking back at the journey so far, what have been the successes and what should we do better next time? 

One health, one approach

"Living with COVID is not necessarily a disaster scenario"

Those present at BeBizz, the Belgian Pavilion's Business Center in Dubai, were welcomed by Jan Wauters, the Science and Technology Counselor for health and digital technologies at FIT. He brought together a group of renowned experts to shed light on the handling of the COVID pandemic. The first to take the stage was Dr. Peter Piot, former director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. In 2020, Piot was appointed as a Special Advisor on COVID-19 to the President of the European Commission.

Dr. Piot was full of praise for the speed at which the vaccines were developed but stressed the importance of sufficient vaccine sharing. “A pandemic doesn’t recognize borders, every country in the world is affected. Yet, the current vaccination rates tell a mixed story. In high-income countries, 1 in 2 people, or 55.8%, have been vaccinated with at least one dose. In low-income countries, this is only 1 in 52 people or 1.94%. This should rapidly increase.” According to the professor, equal access to a vaccine is not just a matter of solidarity and justice. It’s a crucial element in defeating the virus. 

As long as the disease spreads, it can mutate and even render vaccines ineffective. To put it bluntly: no country is safe unless all countries are safe.

Dr. Peter Piot
former director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Nonetheless, Dr. Piot is resolute that we must prepare to live with COVID-19 and other viruses to come, but he remains optimistic about our capacity for change: “We can do it, but we cannot afford to be complacent. All it takes is one global approach to always stay one step ahead. We need strong public health institutions and a continuous effort in research and innovation in this field. Data and IT can offer us valuable insights into the behavior of infectious diseases. And finally: we need to get serious about public trust and community engagement. We are all in the same boat after all.” 

Taking global health seriously

“This can be a real turning point in terms of funding”

After the health seminar’s keynote speeches at Expo 2020 Dubai, two panels of life sciences experts from Flanders were invited to take the floor. The first analyzed the current approach to the pandemic. If there was one thing the experts agreed upon, it was the tremendous speed with which the life sciences industry and academia developed a suitable vaccine. Dr. Isabel Leroux-Roels, Principal Investigator of CEVAC, University of Ghent: “This didn’t happen by chance. We were lucky that the required mRNA technology was already at a well-progressed stage. Today, millions of vaccines are being produced at the Pfizer site in Flanders, a record level, but we still need more.

So, we were fast, but was it fast enough? Not according to Luc Debruyne, advisor to the CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI): ”At the risk of being provocative, 320 days to come up with a vaccine is just not good enough. We need to do better, by having diagnostics and antivirals in place. But we can only get there if we invest in the health industry more permanently, with a dedicated team of researchers.”

However, the availability of resources seems to be a thorny issue in the debate, asserts Dr. Rudi Pauwels, President of the Praesens Foundation: “Societies generally look at health care as a cost. Yet, the COVID crisis has now exposed how a virus doesn’t just affect the lives of individual patients, but the whole community: mentally, socially, and economically. We have to reconsider health care as an investment in development and security.”

According to Marianne De Backer, Executive Vice President at Bayer Pharmaceuticals, the fact the virus hit home in Western countries has really made a difference in terms of funding. “Previously, when funding was being handed out, infectious diseases were never on top of the list. That has changed now. The pandemic can really be a turning point to start taking investment in global health more seriously.

The best time to act is before it happens

For Dr. Rudi Pauwels, the biggest lesson of all is that we need to start thinking differently: “We know 100% that another pandemic is coming, so risk assessment is irrelevant. To curb an outbreak, you must suppress it early on. That’s why we need surveillance on the opponent. I often make the analogy with going to war. You don’t order an air freight carrier to be built the moment you enter the battlefield. The same goes for fighting pandemics: we need to prepare now for what’s coming.” 

“We’ve learned that our global system is fragile,” continues Luc Debruyne. “But if we work together, we can achieve remarkable things. All we need are faster diagnostics to assess and quarantine people more quickly, continuous monitoring to follow the extent by which a virus is changing, and antivirals to treat those who are already infected. To be successful, it’s crucial that we always stay one step ahead.”

Changing the status quo

Do the experts believe the pandemic has caused a mental shift that provides leverage for change? “Pharma is slowly making a turn from treatment to prevention,” says Marianne De Backer. “In the future, technology will allow us to have early indicators that something is wrong with our health. If we can notice these signs before the damage is done, we can think of ways to intercept more quickly.”

“I hear people say that things will get back to normal. I sincerely hope we return to a better normal and that we use this opportunity to reflect and see what we can improve,” concludes Isabel Leroux-Roels.

Innovations at the forefront

Flanders’ resourcefulness to the rescue

The second panel at Expo 2020 Dubai zoomed in on some of the breakthrough technologies and innovations that helped to fight the current pandemic. Much attention was paid to the role of diagnostics and the work of Dr. Katleen Verleysen and her team at miDiagnostics: “In 2015, our company started off with the mission and vision to take accurate diagnostics out of a centralized setting. With the help of strategic research center imec in Flanders, we are now developing an ultra-fast COVID-19 PCR test that will take 15 minutes from sample to result. A pilot project is now running at Brussels Airport.”

Imec laid the foundation of the silicon technology that’s part of the solution to fight the pandemic. According to Dr. Jo De Boeck, Executive Vice President & CTO at imec, it is time to close the gap and make effective use of innovative technologies from other industries in health care. “Pre-COVID, we already saw the need to bring technology closer to healthcare, including prevention, early diagnosing and therapy. miDiagnostics is a nice example of that.” 

Of course, infrastructure is more than just the digital part. Logistics plays a significant role as well, as Samuel Speltdoorn, Cargo Business Development Manager at Brussels Airport explained: “In a pandemic, the supply chain is often overlooked. Overnight, we received the confirmation that the Pfizer vaccine was ready to be distributed, with little to no instructions. Luckily, Brussels Airport is no newcomer in pharma exporting. We started investing heavily in time- and temperature-sensitive cargo about 10 years ago. Today, 50% of all European vaccine export passes through Brussels Airport.” 

Furthermore, agility is at the core of innovation, and that’s exactly what ExeVir Bio did. ExeVir is a spin-off of Flanders’ strategic research center for life sciences VIB, which harnesses llama-derived antibodies to generate robust antiviral therapies against coronaviruses. “Flanders has a very attractive ecosystem which exists for all the different players in the value chain: its rich talent pool enables us to bring a product from the bench to the patients very quickly.” 

Local innovation with global impact

Bringing together great minds, understanding each other’s challenges, and collaboration can lead to solutions, not only to fight COVID, but in other health areas as well. All it takes are new insights and technologies. Jo De Boeck: “The infrastructure is there, but equally important is the human capital to understand these technologies.”

How did ExeVir Bio manage this need for talent? Fiona du Monceau: “We brought in capacity from abroad and tapped into the local talent pool. Flanders has a bunch of experienced consultants that are ready to help start-ups move forward. It’s vital to keep the sector attractive to younger generations and offer them opportunities to gain experience. Specific training centers in Flanders, like ViTalent, are doing just that.”

Katleen Verleysen stresses the importance of strong partnerships to increase your chances of success: “Especially for start-ups, collaboration is important. The landscape has changed enormously. Before, everyone was operating on an island. Now, you must listen to the market. Working with imec and the input from the end-user really helped us move forward.” 

Discover Flanders’ life sciences & health ecosystem 

To say that Flanders has a diverse and innovation-driven business and research ecosystem for life sciences & health would be an understatement. 

Want to unravel this ecosystem in a virtual yet interactive way? Head to the Flanders360 platform and discover 300+ successful companies, universities, R&D centers, incubators and other players active in Flanders’ life sciences & health industry. 

Alternatively, check out our industry overview to learn more about the available tax, legal and other incentives for establishing your life sciences & health hub in Flanders. 

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Reported by
Flanders Investment & Trade
24 November 2021

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Flanders’ future-proof approach to global health threats


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