Interview

#TogetherAgainstCOVID19 - Interview with Bio.Be

In our latest interview we catch up with Tineke Van hooland, Deputy Secretary General at bio.be, who shared how Belgium is becoming Vaccine Valley and how important international cooperation is in times of COVID-19 and beyond. 

Could you briefly introduce bio.be?

Biotechnology and life sciences are key levers for the transformation towards a sustainable, modern and healthy society worldwide. Representing the different biotech sectors (health, agri & biobased), bio.be is the recognised voice of the biotech community to boost innovation and industrialisation in Belgium and beyond.

As we believe there is more power in “We” than “I”, our mantra is to ensure: “Let’s create, connect and communicate, together!

Collaboration is an essential part of beating COVID-19. How does the biotech ecosystem in Belgium tackle the pandemic?

Belgium occupies an unique position thanks to its excellent performance across the entire biotech value chain: “from fundamental research and development, across (pre-) clinical trials all the way up to state-of-the-art products”. In Belgium we have an eco-system which is further strengthened through a close cooperation between high schools, universities, hospitals, spin-offs, start-ups, SMEs, large international corporations and a vast logistics network (e.g. airports, ports).Belgium is a biotech valley like no other, worldwide renown. During the corona crisis our unique eco-system proves its societal added value.

Many biotech companies across Europe have responded and show promising and highly innovative approaches in finding treatments against the virus. What role does biotechnology play in the fight against the virus?

Biotech has shown to play a very important role in the fight against COVID-19, on the level of technology, agility and economic potential going forward.Some examples of how the Belgian biotech sets the scene. At the start of the pandemic, At the start of the pandemic, in its drastic need to increase the testing capacity for Covid-19 in Belgium, companies like Biogazelle and Eurogentec ramped up in 2 weeks time respectively their validation of a RT-qPCR workflow and diagnostic solutions. Belgian Univercells has set-up a pan-European collaboration with Italian ReiThera and German LEUKOCARE for the development and large-scale manufacturing of a novel adenoviral vector-based vaccine against COVID-19. Pfizer has chosen its manufacturing site in Puurs for the production of its candidate COVID-19 vaccine.

Our knowledge also goes beyond Belgium. Jean Stéphenne, about 20 years CEO of GSK’s Belgian branch , is president of the German company CureVac, that is also developing a corona vaccine and for which clinical trials are foreseen in among others Belgium, as of June/July this year. Belgian Paul Stoffels, CSO of Johnson and Johnson, plays a prominent role in J&J’s corona vaccine’s development. On top of that, our Belgian government has decided to invest 20 million of euros in a specialised infrastructure “vaccinopolis” driven by the University of Antwerp (UA) and the University of Brussels (ULB), to accelerate vaccine development and clinical trials.

Silicon Valley is part of California. Belgium is undeniably home to Vaccine Valley.

In these unprecedented times research, industry, politics, and citizens are working tirelessly to beat COVID-19, with national biotech associations taking a key role at the intersection of these areas. How do you see the level of interaction and collaboration in the fight against the pandemic?

For me a national biotech association is both a catalyser and promotor for the biotech industry. If there is one thing that COVID-19 has reinforced, it is the value of science for society. Still today, this tremendous value is too little known by politicians and citizens. Science saves lives and plays an important role in the revitalization of the economy post COVID-19. New jobs will be created in terms of R&D and manufacturing, new therapies will see the light. We should be more proud of it and bring together the different stakeholders so the societal and economic positive impact biotech brings, gets the recognition it deserves.

Together we will find a vaccine/antiviral treatment – what risks do you see for the near future and how must the industry come together to not only find but make the treatments accessible?

I’m convinced that we are on the right track to find a vaccine. The challenge will be to get it manufactured for the entire world. Today no biotech/biopharma company can handle the production for the entire world. There lies an enormous opportunity for companies to use their manufacturing know-how in Europe, like for instance Pfizer has announced in Belgium. European authorities should therefore also further invest in forward-looking and supportive industrial policies to boost the biotech’s economic potential in Europe. Collaboration will be key on all levels and initiatives like the ACT accelerator[1], of which the industry is partner, should be further cherished. Another element will be to ensure all governments respect equitable access and do not establish export bans in the manufacturing countries of origin, limiting access in other parts of the world.

What lessons can be learned for European biotechnology in going forward?

Nevertheless the human misery caused by COVID-19, Belgium gave proof to act quickly in high need. An epic wave of collaboration and solidarity arose in the research, development and manufacturing of products in the biotech eco-system. Urgency has also been applied by governments as driving force for health policy decisions. The crisis has shown us things can be done more decisive with attention for the societal perspective.  That proof of agility, both from the biotech companies and governments perspective, should be cherished and serve as continuous motivation for future industrial policy decisions. Biotech is an answer to societal problems and has an enormous potential to boost the European economy. We should recognise the value of it and continuously support the European biotechnology expertise at the level of research, development and manufacturing. 

It’s good to see the announcements of the EU4Health program and the European Commission's “Pharmaceutical Strategy - Timely patient access to affordable medicines” roadmap, in which the challenges for the EU pharmaceuticals innovation ecosystem funding are highlighted. It will be key to ensure the right implementation of these initiatives so the value generated by European scientific discoveries can be captured in Europe. Let’s make it happen, I would say!

 

[1] A Global Collaboration to Accelerate the Development, Production and Equitable Access to New COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.


Tineke Van hooland is Deputy Secretary General at bio.be. Bio.be is the Belgian federation representing the biotech and the life sciences industry. It is the recognised voice of the biotech community to boost innovation and industrialisation in Belgium and beyond, and operates under the umbrella organisation essenscia. Prior to joining bio.be, Tineke has held several leadership positions in biopharmaceutical companies at corporate level over the past 16 years (AbbVie, Baxalta & Baxter). She has an in-depth expertise in the domains of Governmental Affairs, Market Access, Communication and Patient Advocacy. Tineke graduated with High Distinction as Industrial Pharmacist from Ghent University in 2003. She is known for her dynamic and no-nonsense approach. Tineke is also a female leadership advocate and has authored a number of opinion pieces on sustainable health policy and empowering women.