The New Belgian Chocolate
Oftentimes, the mainstream media paints a story about a country that might not capture the full picture.
International Business Review goes above and beyond to present you with a new perspective to the politics, the business, the people, the culture and the very essence of a country through the eyes of its diplomats, in The Diplomat.
In this issue, the Ambassador of Belgium to Malaysia, H.E Pascal H. Grégoire, writes exclusively for International Business Review about how Belgium has evolved beyond its culinary specialities to become a leader in life science innovation.
“When most people think of Belgium, they think of chocolates, waffles and fries or possibly football. Travel aficionados might mention that the quaint medieval towns with their typical cobblestone streets are well worth visiting. And comic book enthusiasts may tell you that Tin Tin and the Smurfs hail from Belgium. And those with an interest in international politics will surely know that Belgium is home to the European Union and NATO which makes the capital Brussels, the second biggest diplomatic hub worldwide.
All of the above is true. But together let’s get over the clichés for once at least and highlight a lesser known aspect of Belgium. An aspect which makes us the competitive knowledge driven economy we are today: our investment in innovation through research and development. Because Belgium is so much more than just chocolates and waffles.
Breaking the Mold
In Belgium, we realised that in order to maintain our global competitiveness, we needed to invest heavily in research and development. Some say that our creativity, our ability to think outside of the box or even our surrealism has contributed to its success. Let me prove my point by focusing on something very relevant in these days: the fight against COVID-19, in which Belgium plays a crucial role.
With 250 biotech and 200 med-tech companies, together employing around 50,000 people, Belgium is a frontrunner in the area
of life sciences. 1 out of 5 biotech companies focus on the development of cancer therapies. Belgium therefore can call itself a world leader in the niche sectors of cell therapy and antibodies.
Also, the med-tech industry has recently undergone incredible growth and achieved a turnover of close to 3.1 billion euro. Lastly, Belgium is the 3rd biggest exporting country in the world of (bio)pharmaceutical goods. Since the departure of the UK from the European Union, Belgium is Europe’s number 1 in terms of R&D-intensity.
The COVID-19 Innovation Report of UNAIDS and StartupBlink shows that Belgium has managed in a short timeframe to come up with innovative solutions to address the COVID-19 epidemic. According to the report, Belgium is leading the field in Europe and ranks 4th globally.
In terms of the distribution of vaccines and medicines, Belgium had already reinforced its position as one of the most important global hubs. In 2019, these exports have grown by 16.3% to almost 50 billion euro. This accounts for 12.5 percent of total goods exports. With investment in R&D at Euro3.8 billion in 2019, 7.7 percent up compared to 2018, the biopharma sector shows its ambition to continue innovating.
In terms of production, Belgium has three major sites. Firstly, in Puurs in the province of Antwerp, there is one of the Pfizer group’s largest sterile production and packaging sites. This group mainly focuses on the production of the vaccine’s active principle with its German partner BioNTech.
In the Walloon Brabant region, GSK is focused on the adjuvant (a substance that enhances the efficacy or potency of a drug), although it is working with Sanofi on the development of a candidate vaccine. Its Belgian site is its largest vaccine production site in the world. In Seneffe, in the province of Hainaut, the Novasep group is co-producing a vaccine with AstraZeneca.
Alongside these large groups are also Belgian biotechnology firms such as Univercells and Eurogentec, ready to produce the vaccine or adjuvant in the context of the pandemic.
Not later than early February 2020, GSK and Curevac pharmaceutical companies announced a new Euro150m collaboration to jointly develop next generation Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines for COVID-19. Using its established manufacturing network in Belgium, GSK will have 100 million doses of the vaccine in its Belgian facilities in 2021.
Not to mention our airports in Brussels and Liège which are actively preparing to transport these pharmaceutical products under particularly demanding conditions.
Brussels Airport has been acting as a hub for the transfer of vaccines since December 2020 and has already sent ‘more than 10 million doses of vaccine around the world’, according to the airport’s CEO, Arnaud Feist. This trend will grow in the coming months, as the site moved up a gear in January with agreements such as the one just signed with SpiceJet, a low cost indian airline. Brussels Airport and SpiceJet will work with governments, pharmaceutical companies and transport companies to ensure that vaccines are delivered under optimal conditions, including maintaining the temperature required for the storage of COVID-19 vaccines at a constant level.
In December, Head of Cargo Nathan De Valck said that “30-50 percent of the world’s coronavirus vaccines will be transported by air,” and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) called the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines the “mission of the century”. Over the last ten years, Brussels Airport has been investing in services and products for the pharmaceutical sector, which plays an important role in our economy.
If we combine this with its geographical location in the heart of Europe and its excellent logistics sector, Belgium has a real role to play in the fight against the pandemic.”