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How Flanders gets resourceful in the face of COVID-19

In times of crisis, like the coronavirus pandemic, there’s no time to waste. But as many talented people rapidly search for new ways to turn the COVID-19 tide and numerous teams unite to stand strong and innovate together, one thing becomes clear: crisis management is more than a race against the clock, it’s a quest for resourcefulness. Here are some exciting examples of how companies, organizations and individuals from Flanders have adapted resourceful, out-of-the-box mindsets to back our healthcare system and reboot our society in the face of COVID-19.  

Infographic Flanders gets resourceful in the face of COVID-19

Changing the face of health and care

The race toward a vaccine  

Across the globe, some 150 studies are currently being conducted to find a COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutica will start testing its potential vaccine on humans in July. These clinical trials will take place in the US and Flanders/Belgium. By the first half of 2021, the pharmaceutical company hopes to have a working vaccine. 

But there's also the Rega Institute of KU Leuven, biotech research center VIB, Pfizer’s vaccine production unit in Puurs... in short, a myriad of companies, universities and research institutes in Flanders, have joined the global quest for a COVID-19 vaccine. We’ve covered various initiatives in previous articles on how togetherness and multidisciplinary talent are crucial in the battle against coronavirus, as well as in a news article on Flanders’ upcoming vaccinopolis. But the list goes on…   

At the end of May 2020, for example, Novartis subsidiary Avexis announced that it would start the pro bono production of clinical test vaccines developed by Luk Vandenberghe, a PhD researcher from Flanders who’s working on a gene vaccine in Boston (US). As it’s not clear yet which antigens induce the best immune response, Vandenberghe and his team introduced 9 vaccine candidates that target particles of the spike proteins with which the coronavirus attaches itself to human airway cells. Two of these candidates are now being produced in order to start clinical trials in summer 2020. “The deal with Novartis will save us months,” comments Vandenberghe.  

Other researchers from Flanders are making headway, too. In May 2020, Professor Neyts (KU Leuven) and his team announced excellent test results for a study that seeks to repurpose an existing yellow fever vaccine. “This vaccine has been around for more than 80 years and has been administered to a billion people,” the professor explains. “It’s very effective and safe. One injection leads to lifelong immunity.” 

So, how does the repurposing work? The research team introduces a piece of the coronavirus’s genetic code into that of the yellow fever vaccine. In this way, the scientists developed 7 candidate vaccines that have already been tested on rodents. The next step is to repeat the tests and then test the vaccine on humans. “We’re on schedule,” says Neyts. “And we have great hope of being on the right track!”

Unraveling the immune response in COVID-19 patients 

Coronavirus took the world by storm. To be better prepared in case of another pandemic, the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp (Flanders) has started carrying out groundbreaking research in collaboration with Antwerp University Hospital (UZA) and Antwerp University (UAntwerpen).  

“Vaccine research almost always requires extensive knowledge of a specific virus,” says ITM professor Koen Vercauteren. “This is a lengthy process, whereas an outbreak requires a fast response. That’s why our research looks at the human body itself, rather than at individual viruses.” Using samples from COVID-19 patients, the team will analyze white blood cells using high-end computer models. The goal is to better understand the different levels of disease severity in order to determine the required immune response for a vaccine more quickly.  

Antibodies on the radar  

Vaccines aren’t the only holy grail that scientists are after since the COVID-19 outbreak. The search for antibodies has advanced greatly as well. Where regular vaccines introduce a weakened version of the virus to kickstart the body into creating its own antibodies, working directly with antibodies offers immediate (yet shorter) protection. The main advantage? The body doesn’t need to produce its own antibodies. This is especially beneficial for older and more vulnerable people, whose bodies often respond only mildly to vaccines, possibly leading to incomplete protection.  

In this quest for COVID-19 antibodies, a llama from Flanders named Winter has offered great hope to scientists. Four years ago, prof. Xavier Saelens and his VIB-UGent team injected Winter with proteins from the SARS and MERS viruses. They wanted to find out how the llama would react to this injection, as part of their search for a vaccine against those earlier coronaviruses. Winter’s antibodies now appear to be effective against the new coronavirus as well.  

Managing the vital COVID-19 information stream 

As we continue to learn more about the coronavirus, information about the COVID-19 pandemic is evolving rapidly. To improve the way these insights are organized and shared, data specialist ONTOFORCE (Flanders) launched a special version of its self-service knowledge discovery platform, dubbing it ‘the DISQOVER COVID-19 Edition’. “To help researchers, scientists, healthcare providers and citizens, we bring together siloed knowledge about COVID-19, including up-to-date information on clinical studies, scholarly articles, patent documents, medicines, treatments, genes, disease phenotypes and more,” states founder Hans Constandt.  

Plasma as a cure  

As a cure for COVID-19 is yet to be developed, healthcare workers and researchers are experimenting with emergency treatments to give relief to severely ill patients. One such treatment involves injecting blood plasma from a COVID-19 survivor into a patient’s bloodstream.  

This experimental treatment, known as convalescent plasma, is exactly what the Flanders-based team of prof. Bart Lambrecht (VIB-UGent) applied to save a patient’s life at the end of April 2020. They found a willing plasma donor closer than expected: a doctor from the university hospital of Ghent (UZ Gent), who had previously recovered from COVID-19, agreed to the procedure. After his blood plasma was injected into the bloodstream of the patient, who had been on a ventilator for two weeks, the results were remarkable. Within a mere two days after the transfusion, the patient no longer needed respiratory assistance and started recovering rapidly.  

What’s more, a few weeks later, a research team from Flanders announced promising research findings that further back the promising results reached through emergency convalescent plasma transfusions. The VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation Research identified a new type of antigen that plays a crucial role in the immune response to respiratory infections. The findings could explain the mechanism behind how convalescent plasma helps boost immune responses in virus-infected patients, including in people infected with coronavirus.  

KU Leuven, one of Flanders’ universities, has launched a large-scale study to find out even more about the topic. A total of 384 COVID-19 patients will be involved in the study: 2/3 will be injected with convalescent plasma and compared to patients who were not. “We hope the plasma will heal them and prevent them from ending up on ventilators. As such, we seek to help not just patients, but also society at large. After all, if too many COVID-19 patients need artificial respiration at the same time, our intensive care units risk becoming overloaded.”  

Clinical trials in Belgium and Flanders: fast, interconnected and powered by research  

In the absence of a vaccine and treatment, numerous clinical trials have been set up to test whether existing drugs can be repurposed to treat COVID-19. Belgium, of which Flanders is the northern region, is long established as the place to be in this respect. “Our clinical trial system is renowned worldwide for its speed,” explains prof. Bart Lambrecht (VIB-UGent) to life sciences content platform BioVox. “We have been able to approve COVID-19 trials within 2 to 3 days. What also sets us apart is the strong connection between the work done in clinical settings and the basic science conducted at our research institutes.”  

Prof. Lambrecht is one of many academics in Flanders currently leading clinical trials in the face of COVID-19. Two of the main trials (SARPAC and COV-AID) aim to bring relief to patients with hypoxia, a lack of oxygen due to damaged lung tissue. “It’s too early for firm conclusions, but we’re very optimistic,” says Lambrecht. “For COV-AID, in particular, we’re seeing huge improvements in individual patients.”  

Testing and diagnostic innovations   

As early COVID-19 symptoms – including fever, fatigue, body aches and a dry cough – are somewhat similar to flu symptoms, medical professionals need to be very careful when diagnosing and differentiating between these diseases. To help with this daunting task, many initiatives have been launched to speed up COVID-19 sample testing. One such project is led by Biocartis, an innovative molecular diagnostics company from Mechelen (Flanders). Its new Idylla™ SARS-Cov-2 test can help healthcare professionals rapidly and easily test people with flu-like symptoms using Biocartis’ fully automated molecular diagnostics platform.  

In addition to developing new tests, artificial intelligence (AI) can also play a role in diagnosing COVID-19 as fast as possible. In this respect, icometrix (Leuven) started working on an AI-based software solution called ‘icolung’ early on in the coronavirus pandemic. In cooperation with dozens of hospitals, the project involved training icometrix’s brain scan interpretation software to analyze lung scans.  

It didn’t take long for the innovative technology from Flanders to conquer the world. On 23 April 2020, the solution received the CE marking from the European Commission and became available on a global scale. In mid-May, the American Food & Drug Administration also gave permission for the clinical use of the icolung algorithms on lung scans of COVID-19 patients. The groundbreaking tech assists medical staff in the rapid and objective triage of patients infected with coronavirus by assessing the stage and severity of the disease.   

Meanwhile, test tech is also crucial during the care process that follows diagnosis. In this context, a promising innovation has been developed by Byteflies, a medtech firm from Mechelen (Flanders), together with 6 other tech companies. It involves a smart, AI-driven medical patch that’s placed on a patient’s chest to constantly measure their heart rate, breathing patterns and temperature. The data is transmitted wirelessly to a digital platform that healthcare workers can consult. Thanks to the use of innovative glues and electrodes, the patch can be worn for 5 to 6 days without the reapplication of adhesive instead of just one, as is the case with most systems currently used.  

Practical and safe: lung examination from a distance 

While regular lung health checks are required to monitor COVID-19 patients, they pose a challenge for healthcare professionals, who need to enter the patient’s room wearing sterile clothing and then completely change and wash their hands before examining the next patient. To improve safety and reduce the workload, a team of researchers from Flanders Make @ UAntwerp has therefore developed a remote stethoscope system that allows lung examination without direct physical contact. Following the test phase at Antwerp University Hospital, the system will be offered as an open-source solution to support physicians worldwide.  

Rebooting business and society in times of social distancing

Rethinking visitor traffic and reception  

As lockdown measures are relaxed across the world and different types of economic activities start up again, companies and organizations are adapting their hygiene and visitor reception approaches to the new COVID-19 reality. In Flanders, various firms from Flanders offer a variety of new and creative solutions that help. Take LuGus Studios, for instance. This game developer from Hasselt (Flanders) has teamed up with Skypersonic (US) to codevelop a drone capable of disinfecting buildings and other infrastructure without the need for on-site human intervention, reducing the risks of infection even further. 

Other Flanders-based players – including BRuv-cO (Kemzeke), SpectronX (Wetteren) and Inkart (Ruisbroek) – take a different angle by utilizing ultraviolet C light. With this technology, products and equipment, such as helmets, face masks, clothing and even shopping carts, can be placed in a special disinfection unit. UVC rays then disinfect the content in a matter of minutes, enabling the disinfection of a much larger number of items and materials in a shorter timeframe. Meanwhile, bioengineering company GreenX (Houthalen) offers a solution to disinfect face masks and protective clothing in yet another way, by spreading hydrogen peroxide in an enclosed space. 

But since prevention is better than cure, many organizations and public spaces are also looking for ways to avoid as much direct physical contact as possible, especially in busy environments such as reception areas. In this respect, various enterprises from Flanders – think of Brilliant (Olen), Checkmade (Zele), CheckMarket (Turnhout), Ocular (Zwevezele), Peripass (Ghent), Varel Security (Hasselt) – developed novel contactless reception and visitor traffic solutions. These include screening tools, reception kiosks with QR scanners, automated doors, elevated skin temperature screening devices, sensor-based building and parking occupancy counters, logistics flows management systems, etc.  

Meanwhile, FeverVision (Hasselt) developed a solution that uses video displays to show people how to best wash their hands, while screening their skin temperature. Bringme, a digital technology company from Leuven, even developed a virtual receptionist with support from Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship (VLAIO). This ‘corona detective’ automates visitor reception at companies in order to prevent coronavirus infections at work. But there are more ‘made in Flanders’ elevated skin temperature (EST) screening solutions out there. Take, for example, Infrasensing’s infrared sensors and thermal cameras for staff and visitors temperature monitoring. The company’s EST kits are based on years of industrial expertise.

One Flanders-based innovator – ZoraBots from Ostend – took it up another notch by developing a new type of humanoid robot to help keep crowded places and busy environments free of COVID-19. It does so by verifying whether face masks are worn where needed and by enabling people to check whether or not they have an increased skin temperature.  

How to disinfect entire streets and buildings  

Disinfection efforts can take on huge proportions – something ANG Group from Oudenaarde (Flanders) knows all about. Three years ago, the container expert codeveloped a large spray container for agricultural applications that is now being shipped across the world to be used in the battle against COVID-19. “The system includes a large storage tank, a spray gun, a pump and a motor,” explains Guillaume Vander Stichele from ANG Group. “By filling the storage tank with disinfectant, you can disinfect streets and large buildings very quickly. The fact that the containers are compatible with virtually every truck makes the system even more interesting.” 

Hospitality reinvented  

One specific context requires innovative solutions to guarantee social distancing without disturbing social experiences. We’re referring, of course, to the thousands of bars, restaurants, hotels and other hospitality environments that had to shut their doors during the COVID-19 lockdown. That’s why several companies in Flanders – such as Prostor (Geluwe), Visix (Roeselare) and Pikatso (Booischot) – decided to launch novel types of transparent screens and canvases. These can assist bars, restaurants and so on in keeping customers at a safe distance from each other, without creating the impression of compartmentation.  

New digital solutions are also making their way onto the hospitality scene. Flanders-based start-up Helios Technologies, for example, launched a platform for the cultural, hospitality and tourism industries that allows visitors and customers to download audio guides, videos and 2D or 3D images and experiences onto their smartphones. As a result, they don’t need to touch any external, possibly contaminated devices. In a similar vein, Pixeo (Arendonk) built a QR-based application that enables customers in bars and restaurants to check virtual menu cards on their smartphones, place their orders digitally and proceed to contactless payment.  

Aarixa, a software company from Herk-de-Stad (Flanders), even developed a digital bartender named ‘De Digitale Barman’ in Dutch. The concept is simple: customers can use their smartphone to scan a code on their table and receive an overview of what’s on the menu. Afterwards, their order is digitally passed to the bartender or cook, and payment can be made directly. The personnel can then choose to bring the order to the table or signal customers to pick it up at the counter.  

Social distancing and contact tracing at work  

Digitization is also key when it comes to developing solutions to help employees keep a safe distance in the workplace. In this respect, several Flanders-based firms have developed social-distancing wearables that are currently in high demand across the globe. Based on Bluetooth, ultra-wideband or other telecom technologies, the wearable devices alert colleagues if they come too close to one another. There are plenty of examples, from Rombit’s smart bracelet to imec spin-off Lopos’ SafeDistance, ProDongle’s Proximity Alert and the award-winning Maggy device.  

Some of these wearables can be used  for additional purposes. Pozyx, for instance, developed a wearable Health & Safety Tag. Coupled with an indoor positioning system, this helps companies track workers and obtain a detailed list of the areas in which they were active and the colleagues with whom they interacted. These insights enable highly targeted coronavirus testing and disinfection of specific areas.  

But it’s not just Flanders-based firms that leverage the local smart technology talent and knowhow in the face of COVID-19. The region’s expertise in this field has also urged Australian scale-up RightCrowd to call upon its R&D department in Flanders to develop a novel contract-tracing badge, called Presence Control.  

Furthermore, one of Flanders’ strategic research centers – Flanders Make – developed two different social distancing systems for production environments as well as a skin temperature screening device. Weaving machine manufacturer Picanol from Ypres (Flanders) was actively involved in the process and the first to test the innovations.  

Looking for the post-corona workplace 

The Beacon, a cluster organization for IoT and AI innovation located at the Port of Antwerp (Flanders), has launched ‘New Work’. As part of this project, companies that have developed new solutions to keep workplaces healthy, safe and productive can test their technologies for a period of two months at The Beacon offices. The best applications will receive a EUR 15,000 prize.  

Going places with face masks  

In addition to social distancing and contact tracing, face masks remain one of the main tools in fighting the spread of COVID-19 – and many businesses and citizens have pitched in to produce enough masks for everyone. But while they are a great help, the masks also come with practical inconveniences for healthcare workers and citizens alike – from unrecognizable faces and foggy glasses to skin irritation. Luckily, various innovations and initiatives in Flanders seek to resolve these issues.  

Take Tokai Optecs, for example. This Flanders-Japan joint venture based in Tienen developed ‘Defog Coating’, a product to treat glasses so that they no longer fog up in the face of face masks. Furthermore, Luc Hilderson a photographer from Mechelen (Flanders) started traveling to hospitals and care centers in a mobile studio. His goal? To take photographs of local healthcare workers and print the pictures unto wearable buttons, so people can still recognize them even with face masks on.  

Meanwhile, two Flanders-based enterprises – S&S Plastics from Pelt and ComfortStrap from Brakel – have each come up with a solution for the skin irritation many people experience behind their ears due to wearing face masks. Through 3D printing, S&S Plastics developed the ‘Ear Saver’ to keep the masks from cutting lines into the skin. ComfortStrap, on the other hand, invented an ingenuous tool to bring ear relief: a silicone rubber strap with 3 buttons for size adjustment on both sides. While the first ComfortStrap model was being shipped to hospitals and nursing homes across Europe, the company immediately started working on an improved second model, which was finished shortly after.  

3D printing: saving face masks from the trash can  

Across numerous hospitals in Europe, around 3 million KN95 face masks are waiting to be worn but risk never being used. The problem? While their filters are top-notch, their shape isn’t optimally adapted to morphology of European faces, causing air to pass along the sides of the masks. Materialise, Flanders’ leading additive manufacturing specialist, decided to come to the rescue.  

The 3D printing pioneer designed a new type of brace to make the masks fit better. After the prototype was tested for two to three weeks, the new accessory was approved by the competent minister, allowing production to move forward quickly. “With 3D printing, we can print around 1,000 braces in just 2 days,” comments Bram Smits, advisor at Materialise. “What’s more, they’re fully reusable.”  

Inventive and heartwarming at the same time

Together with technology partner NSX, Health Endeavour developed a social prescription platform – called Zipster. This enables patients to contact their doctor and receive a ‘social prescription’ to support their psychosocial needs.From increased telecommuting to e-health solutions, it’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the digitization of our society. To avoid that older people and less tech savvy communities are left behind or become socially isolated, many initiatives have been launched around the world and in Flanders as well. Think of Virtual Hugs, for instance, which saw Deloitte, Close the Gap and VUB collecting used tablets and smartphones for people in care homes and older COVID-19 patients in hospitals – allowing them to stay in touch with families and friends.  

Numerous digital start-ups from Flanders have made efforts to better reach these specific target groups as well. Noblito, for example, helps senior citizens who feel isolated by enabling them to share pictures and messages with family and friends for free. Meanwhile, if you’re not used to handling this kind of technology, then Beego comes to the rescue with its free digital crisis line, allowing people to contact IT students for assistance in setting up digital apps such as Skype and WhatsApp.  

But it doesn’t end there. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of digital initiatives that are as inventive as they are heartwarming: 

  • Together with technology partner NSX, Health Endeavour developed social prescription platform – called Zipster. This enables patients to contact their doctor and receive a ‘social prescription’ to support their psychosocial needs.  
  • Based on its existing platform, Helpper has set up a telephone line for care personnel to relieve them of tasks such as shopping or walking the dog.  
  • Activ84Health offered its Memoride solution for free to residential care facilities, taking the elderly on virtual cycle trips through the neighborhoods they grew up in.  
  • Radix has launched a free online learning application that allows users to easily find online training courses that are perfectly suited to their job.  
  • Moonbird developed a tool that guides people through breathing exercises whenever they’re experiencing stress due to the COVID-19 lockdown or other reasons, using algorithms to calculate personalized breathing rhythms.  
  • Bingli helps avoid overcrowded doctor’s offices and hospitals. The company developed a multilingual, scientifically backed COVID-19 triage module to determine whether a patient should be seen by a doctor.  
  • Spikes seeks to support the healthcare industry in two ways. On the one hand, its solution provides accurate management information about the infection status of residents and staff in health and care institutions. On the other hand, the tool enables volunteers to safely resume their work in care facilities.  

We're here for you!

As COVID-19 measures are gradually being relaxed around the world, what matters most is to stay safe, united and, above all, to stay positive about the future. In this context, we would like to ensure you that Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT) stands ready to answer any questions you may have about safeguarding your international business in these uncertain times.  

Reported by
the websites of De Tijd, VRT, Belga, De Morgen, Het Laatste Nieuws, Het Belang van Limburg, VUB, AmCham, Made in, VITO, Flanders Make, VIB, VITO, FLEGA, Datanews, BioVox,, Rombit, imec, Radix, Ondernemen in Antwerpen,
11 June 2020

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