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How Flanders’ talent unites in the global COVID-19 fight

“Where there is unity there is always victory.” It’s an ancient phrase from a Latin writer named Publilius Syrus, but it carries a promise that is now more relevant than ever. As countries around the world manage their confinement measures, organizations and specialists from Flanders continue to unite in the global fight against COVID-19. Their innovative and dedicated work is pushing boundaries in critical fields of expertise, from the prevention domain and the medical front lines to the world of research and society at large. Following our March overview, here’s a non-exhaustive list of inspiring stories from April 2020.  

Graphic with people talking and wearing medical masks

In the prevention field

It’s personal… protection equipment  

Prevention is better than cure – and in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, this requires a lot of face masks, sanitizer and other types of personal protection. While companies in various industries decided to stop what they’re doing in order to help stitch mask and produce disinfectants, many of Flanders’ universities and research centers also began developing alternative protective equipment. We’ve covered various initiatives in a previous article; here are a few additional examples:  

  • Twikit – a 3D printing company that’s part of the istart program at strategic research center imec – invented two novel types of face masks. The first is a DIY mask for people to make at home. The second is a reusable and more comfortable face mask for medical professionals. To produce the masks, Twikit has gained support from some of the largest companies in the world. 

  • The university of Brussels (VUB) started investigating how to transform snorkeling masks into suitable protective masks with additional filters.  

  • VITO, also one of Flanders’ strategic research centers, began producing disinfectant gel and offered its face masks and protective clothing to hospitals.  

What’s more, with an additional production capacity of more than 1 million liters of alcohol-based hand sanitizer and 5 million liters of other disinfectants, local chemicalpharmaceutical and food companies managed to solve the impending shortage at hospitals, nursing homes and other care institutes in Flanders and the other regions of Belgium. The successful outcome was in a large part due to far-reaching cooperation between the different sectors as well as with the government.  

In addition, various agri-food and chemical multinationals with major sites in Flanders – such as AB Inbev, Alco, Cargill, Ecover, ExxonMobil and Oleon – went the extra mile by ramping up their production capacity. This, in order to supply disinfecting alcohol to the healthcare sector in Flanders, Europe and beyond. To highlight one figure: Flanders-based soap producer Christeyns had to deploy extra personnel and schedule night shifts, as 30% of all hospital textiles in Europe are sanitized using its products.  

Stopping infection from ‘appening  

Technology also has its part to play in terms of prevention. This includes mobile apps like ‘Flattening The Curve’, developed by Flanders-based tech firm Adunio (Vilvoorde), marketing agency Gaga (Merchtem) and medtech start-up MyBingli (Antwerp). Thanks to the support of major partners such as Microsoft Blue Health Innovation Center, Epcon and Keyrus, the app can detect areas with a high number of COVID-19 infections and warn users when they recently were in one of these ‘hot zones’. “This makes it easier for governments and hospitals to make decisions and estimates, while hot zones – areas with many infections – can be identified more easily,” comments Vincent Nys from Flattening The Curve.  

In addition, various digital solutions have been introduced to help companies implement social distancing and prevent coronavirus infections between co-workers:  

  • Rombit (Antwerp) launched a smart bracelet for employees in construction, logistics and other heavy industries. Whenever co-workers come too close to one another, the bracelet sends out a warning signal, but it also permits contact tracing in case of an infection. The Port of Antwerp will be the first to use the new tool.  
  • Lopos, a spin-off company of digital research center imec and UGent, developed a pin that triggers a sound signal when employees don’t respect the social distancing guidelines 1.  
  • Two network firms – WMW and Crescent – created a bluetooth device that constantly monitors whether colleagues respect each other’s ‘virtual bubbles’. “A Bluetooth connection enables you to measure the exact distance to another device equipped with Bluetooth, making it a great technology to help co-workers keep a safe distance,” comments KU Leuven cryptographer Bart Preneel.  

Prevention beyond the crisis 

Some preventive solutions also prove their worth in preventing COVID-19 infections after the initial crisis. Flanders-based infrastructure specialist APK Group provides a great example. Its integrated system of heat cameras, access control solutions and algorithms can screen large groups of people for fever. “The heat camera detects a group of people very quickly,” explains CEO Maarten Broens. “It then zooms in on separate bodies and performs measurements almost instantly. As such, our system can measure the body temperatures of up to 30 people in just one minute. This is much more efficient than traditional systems that involve more manual work and typically take up to 20 seconds to evaluate the temperature of a single person.  

“When a specific person in a group has a high body temperature and is suspected of having a fever, the system can trigger an alert system, allowing safety personnel to stop the whole group and take more specific measurements,” Maarten Broens adds. “This could be useful in fostering a sense of security immediately after the lockdown measures, when the coronavirus is under control but still lingering worldwide.”

On the health and care front lines

Toward faster diagnosis: will AI save the day?  

The better we can test people for coronavirus infection, the more effectively we can counter the COVID-19 pandemic. The most commonly used test method is to collect a sample from the back of the throat via the nose using a nasopharyngeal swab. It then takes at least several hours to get the test results back. To speed up the testing process without compromising reliability, a CT scan of the lungs provides an alternative. In order to work even faster, European radiologists’ association EuSoMii decided to explore the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and called upon Robovision, a tech firm from Ghent (Flanders), to develop a kind of ‘superbrain’.  

“Around 30 hospitals across Europe are sharing CT scans of COVID-19 patients with a data center,” explains founder Jonathan Berte. “These images are then sent to radiologists, who manually color in areas of lung damage. All this data is collected by a supercomputer to allow our AI algorithm to learn how to recognize lung damage. Once it has been trained, it will be able to ‘independently’ analyze CT scans to help determine whether patients are infected with coronavirus, how badly their lungs are damaged and whether they should be taken into intensive care.” As part of the project, software giants Microsoft and Google and chip developer Nvidia have offered to provide the computing capacity required to analyze scans on a large scale – and American radiology association RSNA is also interested in joining the initiative.  

What’s more, icometrix – a company from Leuven (Flanders) – is working on a similar AI-based software solution called ‘icolung’. The project involves training icometrix’s brain scan interpretation software to also analyze lung scans, in collaboration with a dozen hospitals in the region. The aim is to assist in the triage of patients infected with the COVID-19 virus by assessing the stage and severity of the disease.  

Testing ever more rapidly  

In anticipation of AI-powered diagnosis, it remains vital to analyze nasopharyngeal swabs as swiftly as possible through polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing. In this respect, the pharma and biotech sectors in Belgium and Flanders decided to join forces to increase COVID-19 test capacity from 2,000 tests to more than 10,000 per day – which is one of Europe’s highest levels relative to the number of inhabitants.  

Local universities and scientific institutes like biotech research center VIB promptly started working closely with a federal taskforce and the Flanders sites of industry leaders such as the BASF Innovation CenterBiogazelle and Janssen Pharmaceutica. Their strategy? To use a test method co-developed by Leuven University that requires fewer reagents. Meanwhile, pharma players are enabling a major scale-up by providing lab space, people, reagents and equipment. In addition, biotech firm Biogazelle, which is situated in the Zwijnaarde Science Park in Ghent, created an automated testing process – giving further impetus to the cross-sectoral collaboration.  

“We developed a highly sensitive detection test at record speed – in just ten days,” comments Mieke Van Acker, CEO of Biogazelle. “Our team sacrificed a lot of sleep, but we succeeded!” With support from Ghent University (UGent) and the associated university hospital (UZ Gent) as well as VIB, the young company is now investigating how to robotize the first step in the test procedure, i.e. the deactivation of the virus. This could speed up the turnaround time even more.  

Another company at the Zwijnaarde Science Park that seeks to make COVID-19 testing more time efficient is Fujirebio Europe. The firm, which is part of Japanese Miraca Holding, launched a new type of molecular detection assay. “It was essential for us to offer this new test as quickly as possible,” says Christiaan De Wilde, CEO of Fujirebio Europe. “It adds real value to the current COVID-19 testing algorithms by eliminating the RNA extraction step, bringing the sample-to-result procedure down to just 75 minutes.”  

Providing air to intensive care  

Around the globe, hospitals are looking for medical equipment that can provide oxygen-enriched air to critically ill COVID-19 patients. Currently, this treatment is carried out using mechanical ventilators, which are distributed to a limited extent. As a result, doctors today are investigating various methods to apply positive pressure to a patient’s lungs without using a ventilator. That’s why Materialise – an additive manufacturing pioneer from Leuven (Flanders) – developed the NIP Connector.  

This device converts standard hospital equipment into a mask that facilitates the patient’s breathing by creating positive pressure in the lungs. With these masks, doctors can shorten the time during which patients must use mechanical ventilators, making them available for critical cases and helping to reduce pressure on ventilator suppliers. “3D printing plays a crucial role in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic by enabling innovative solutions to be developed and made available worldwide very quickly,” comments Brigitte De Vet, vice president of Materialise Medical.  

Another artificial respiration innovation was invented by two brothers: Jan and Stijn Herregodts. A medical student and intern at the emergency department of the OLV Hospital in Aalst (Flanders), Jan Herregodts (25) was worried when he saw the influx of corona patients increase. He feared conditions in which patients could not be given artificial respiration and therefore put together the first prototype of a new respirator, together with his brother Stijn, a PhD student in the field of robotic surgery.  

Through consultancy firm EY, the brothers were put in contact with IGMO, a network of 180 managers from Flanders associated with Vlerick Business School. Around 20 companies offered support in the development of the ventilator, leading Jan and Stijn to found a non-profit organization (Gear Up Medical) to start production. “We made a very simple version of the device without all the bells and whistles, so to speak,” Jan explains. “As a result, the respirator can also be used by nurses and even trainees.”  

But the growing support provided by tech companies to intensive care units doesn’t end there. Ergotrics, a medtech company from Turnhout (Flanders), has developed Inflatable Prone Ventilation Support (IPV). This solution assists medical staff in the abdominal positioning of ventilated COVID-19 patients.  

“Ergotrics specializes in the development of systems that enable the rotation and positioning of patients on operating tables – and IPV is in fact an adaptation of an existing product,” says CEO Inge Bruynooghe. “The ergonomic cushions are normally inflated via a valve. But now we’ve made it possible to let the air out again, so that one cushion can be used several times for the same patient. The uniqueness of our solution resides in the use of compressed air instead of manual pressure, enabling only 3 instead of 5 or 6 nurses to adequately position patients in an ergonomic way.”  

After-care at home from a distance  

Images of overcrowded intensive care units are currently making headlines around the world. A topic that’s less covered is what happens after COVID-19 patients leave the hospital, or when people fight off the illness at home. In Flanders, the AZ Maria Middelares hospital is relying on a new e-health solution  – developed by BeWell Innovations (Ranst) – to provide care to patients at home from a distance.  

People who arrive at the emergency room (ER) with mild COVID-19 symptoms are sent back home, after which they are monitored closely through a daily questionnaire and self-measurements. These measurements include vital parameters such as body temperature, blood pressure and oxygen saturation. Based on this input, the medical staff can decide whether the patient should return to the ER or stay at home.  

“We are creating a care continuum around the patient so that they do not end up in a void when switching between primary and secondary care,” states Ronny Goethals, medical director at AZ Maria Middelares. “The digital COVID@Home platform facilitates collaboration between GPs, home nurses and the hospital, so that they can seamlessly coordinate care together. This will be the care model of the future.”  

In research and scientific circles

A researcher’s work is never done  

Ambitious research initiatives have been launched at Flanders’ universities and research centers in search of a possible cure and vaccine for COVID-19. We previously covered several of these stories in depth, including the following:  

  • Under supervision of Bart Lambrecht (UZ Gent, UGent, VIB), two clinical studies are running to test various existing medicines.  

  • Prof. Johan Neyts (Rega) is testing 15,000 molecules for potential action against the coronavirus.  

  • Under the leadership of Xavier Saelens and Nico Callewaert (VIB-UGent), biotech research center VIB is working on the development of a prophylactic vaccine based on antibodies that could inhibit viral infection.  

But the world of science doesn’t sleep. New avenues are continuously explored in hopes of lowering the impact of the coronavirus on the world. As such, researchers and physicians at Leuven University (KU Leuven) and the associated university hospital (UZ Leuven) joined forces to unravel the mechanism of the coronavirus. They aim to understand its effect on humans and the immune system, discover its weaknesses and test treatments on real patients. With a broad group of nearly 160 patients at the hospital’s COVID-19 department and over 50 patients in intensive care, UZ Leuven can conduct scientifically relevant clinical studies on an international level.  

In the coming weeks and months, these and other research projects will benefit from a new federal measure to accelerate the evaluation and approval of clinical trial applications for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. While clinical trial procedures in Flanders/Belgium were already among the fastest worldwide, they have now been accelerated even further, from around 28 days to just 4 days. What’s more, applications can be sent – free of charge – through a single submission to the federal agency for medicines and health products (FAMPH).  

Studying the behavioral aspects of the curve and confinement 

Flanders’ academic research efforts are not only useful in the search for a possible cure and vaccine, but also in understanding the effects of people’s behavior on how the coronavirus outbreak spreads. For example, by conducting weekly online surveys, professors Philippe Beutels (UAntwerpen) and Niel Hens (UHasselt) started studying how people’s behavior, lifestyle and emotional state change in response to the government’s measures to limit the impact of the coronavirus outbreak. Their ultimate goal is to be able to better assess the evolution of the COVID-19 epidemic curve. In addition, the universities of Ghent (UGent) and Leuven (KU Leuven) began conducting surveys to study people’s psychological responses to the COVID-19 confinement.  

Supporting science all the way  

To further back COVID-19 research, Flanders’ Minister of Innovation & Science Hilde Crevits has earmarked an additional EUR 3.75 million via the Scientific Research Fund and Flanders’ biotech research center VIB. “It’s clear that our researchers are also on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus, boosting our trust and faith in science and scientists,” comments the minister.  

As part of this governmental support round, a new COVID-19 council was launched on 11 April 2020. The council consists of nine scientists from each of Flanders’ five universities, the Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine and strategic research center VIB. It will give advice on scientific research related to, among other topics, the effectiveness of vaccines and antiviral products, the production of face masks and ventilators, the impact of lockdown measures, mass immunity and more.  

Moreover, Flanders Make – another strategic research center supported by the government of Flanders – decided to channel EUR 1 million into a range of projects. These include the development of novel ventilation equipment, infrared fever measurement tools, remote auscultation and face masks.  

In society at large

Keeping people informed and connected, managing social distancing, explaining the complexity of the coronavirus crisis to children … The COVID-19 pandemic presents a range of societal challenges that often require creative answers. Below are some of the latest examples from Flanders:  

  • The corona monkey, created by illustrator Chris Vosters from Kinrooi (Flanders), helps families explain the COVID-19 epidemic in a clear way to children. “It’s nice to know that the character and its story click with so many people,” Voster proudly comments. After he posted the graphic story online on the Bored Panda platform, the corona monkey soon went viral across the world, from South Africa to Brazil.  

  • The poetic yet humoristic work of Klaas Verplancke, an illustrator  from Zwevegem (Flanders), has been used as part of a digital billboard campaign in New York (US). Accompanied by the slogan “Save lives. Live safe. #Keepdistance”, Verplancke’s illustrations encourage New Yorkers to respect the social distancing guidelines.  
  • Mobco, an IT company from Dilbeek (Flanders) developed the ‘Stay Connected’ initiative in collaboration with South Korean electronics giant Samsung. Together, the companies offer COVID-19 patients and nursing home residents a digital window to the world via a Samsung Xcover Pro smartphone with only essential apps installed that can be submerged in disinfectant liquid.  

  • Technology firm Seaters from Diegem (Flanders) normally helps distribute unused sponsoring tickets for sports and cultural events. But now, the former imec.istart participant has developed a solution to manage the negative side effects of social distancing measures. These include queuing and grouping at authorized locations such as food stores, pharmacies and hospitals. Seaters has transformed its product into a Virtual Queuing System that allows people to request an appointment voucher for an authorized location and takes social distancing rules (1 person per 10 m2) and necessary visiting time per person into account.  
     

  • E-commerce platform Easy Order from Zaventem (Flanders) decided to make its online ordering system available for free during the COVID-19 confinement. The system combines online orders, reservations, payment options, digital loyalty cards, online marketing and a cash register system, making them accessible via a single control panel. “Across the world, local retailers have been hit very hard by this crisis,” explains CCO Laurent Vandervelde of EasyOrder. “Meanwhile, many consumers are afraid to stand in line at stores. Our solution aims to shorten lines and avoid product availability uncertainty. Consumers can see what’s available and place orders in complete safety. Retailers, on the other hand can communicate directly about pick-up or delivery times and promote certain products.”  

  • In the face of COVID-19, the famous Tour of Flanders hasn’t been postponed or cancelled. Instead, the cycling competition was held online! Organizing partner Flanders Classics decided to work with American start-up Kiswe, indoor cycling simulator Bkool and Flanders’ sports TV company Sporza. The aim? To turn the 104th edition of the Tour of Flanders into the region’s first-ever virtual cycling race, called ‘De Ronde 2020 – The Lockdown Edition’. The team pulled it off in under two weeks using Bkool’s cycling simulator and Kiswe’s remote broadcasting platform. As such, 13 world-class professional cyclists from 8 different teams – including reigning world number one Greg Van Avermaet – competed by cycling the last 32 kilometers of the Tour of Flanders virtually on their bicycles at home.  

  • As part of the “One World: Together At Home” concert, a popular singer from Brussels – the capital of Belgium and Flanders – helped rally support for the COVID-19 Solidary Response Fund established by the World Health Organization (WHO). Angèle Joséphine Aimée Van Laeken, better known by her stage name Angèle, performed her 2018 hit song “Balance ton quoi”, which addresses contemporary forms of sexism in light of #MeToo movement.  

Take care (of each other)!

It’s inspiring to see how so many companies, organizations and talented people are uniting around the globe to try and put a halt to the COVID-19 pandemic. At Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT), we aim to put our shoulder to the wheel as well. Even while keeping our distance in these trying times, FIT is eager to help your business go far. Our colleagues around the globe stand ready to help you tackle the challenges ahead.  

Reported by
The content of this article is based on information published on websites of De Tijd, Het Laatste Nieuws, VRT, AmCham Belgium, BioVox, essenscia, EWI, flanders.bio, Flanders Make, several 'Made in' websites, pharma.be and UZ Leuven
27 April 2020

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