Speech by President von der Leyen at the launch of the Belgian Biopharma Platform

(Source: European Commission)

Thank you so much Prime Minister, dear Alexander,

Ministers, State Secretaries,

Distinguished guests,

And I am very glad to see the ‘grand seigneur’ of the vaccines, Professor Peter Piot, here in the audience, too,

I am delighted to join you for this, indeed, official launch of the Belgian Biopharma Platform today. And I am delighted to join you especially because it is in person that we meet here today. And I am explicitly mentioning this because a physical meeting today would not have been possible without the success story of the European vaccination campaign. But this European vaccination campaign, this success story, would not have been possible without Belgium. It was in Belgium where the new, the life-saving mRNA vaccines have been produced for the very first time on a large scale. It was Belgium, which played a key role in the clinical trials. And it is Belgium from which Europe sends a big part of the vaccines, exporting to countries all over the world. I had the pleasure to visit the Pfizer site in Puurs. It is really a true vaccine powerhouse, like so many of the world-leading pharma innovation centres you have here in this country. So today, I want, first and foremost, to thank you for the steadfast support that you have shown, you, personally, Alexander, dear Prime Minister, but also Belgium as a whole. This was outstanding and, from the bottom of my heart, many, many thanks for that.

I also warmly welcome the same, as you have said, European direction of the Biopharma strategy that is presented today. Belgium provides – and I can tell because I oversee the 27 Member States – an incredibly conducive, enabling environment for the biopharma and biotech industries. You have world-class universities; you have well-known hospitals; you have an experienced and talented workforce that you attract from all over the world; and you have a very strong focus on innovation. And it is so good to see that you are building on this strength with your new Biopharma strategy, a strategy that puts European cooperation at its core.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Indeed, this year has shown why the pharma and biotech sector is such a strategic asset for our Union. The whole world has been caught off guard by COVID-19. But today, if you look at the results now after ten months of vaccination campaign, we have not only more than 75% of adults in the European Union fully vaccinated, but – and this is where we should really take pride in – we have also exported more than 1 billion of vaccine doses to over 150 countries. We have made good on our promise that at least every second dose produced here in the European Union will be exported, shipped abroad. And indeed, it is more than every second dose that has been produced here in the European Union that has been shipped abroad. So while others have isolated themselves, Europe offered help to the world. It was a choice we made together. It is the result of our joint effort and I really think that we can be proud of that. But we have not yet defeated COVID-19, unless we can control the virus in India, in Africa, in Latin America and across the globe.

And this is why Team Europe – that is the European Commission and the European Member States – is now investing more than EUR 1 billion in establishing mRNA manufacturing capacities in Africa. I know that Belgium, with its expertise and with its know-how, can contribute a great deal to this strategic project. And we will do more. I have started, together with the US President, Joe Biden, a vaccine partnership, an EU-US vaccine partnership, to beat the global pandemic. And we have set ourselves the goal to have 70% of the global population vaccinated by next year. The European Union will donate more than 500 million doses within the next months, and the United States will also do its share. But of course, other countries have to step up and to contribute, too. And therefore, I am working very closely with the G20 Presidency – that is Italy, Prime Minister Mario Draghi – and the American President, that this weekend at the G20 Summit we rally the leaders around the goal to have 70% of the world’s population vaccinated by next year, and thus to step up the donations and to step up the manufacturing of life-saving vaccines for the whole world. This is the focus at the moment being.

But, of course, at the same time, we have to prepare ourselves for future health threats. A great European, Jacques Delors, once said: ‘In the face of a crisis, you need both – a fireman as well as an architect’. So the firefighters – I would say – are the vaccines, but let us talk for a moment about the two pillars of the future architecture – the lessons we have drawn out of this crisis.

First of all, we have created a new Health Emergency preparedness and Response Authority, in short HERA. HERA’s task is to better prepare for health emergencies, to detect them earlier and promptly, and to respond collectively. All three things that we did not have when COVID-19 started: We were not prepared, we had no clue how to detect it early enough and we had no joint cooperation in place – we all had to learn that. So the scope of HERA will reach from collective procurement – for example of protective equipment, medicines and vaccines – to coordinating, for example, the rules for testing and quarantine, and all you can think of that is necessary if you are faced with such a cross-border health threat. We will also strengthen the European pharmaceutical sector and the health ecosystem in which Belgium is such a prominent actor.

This brings me to the second point. Here, we have the innovation and the scientific capacity – here in Belgium and in the European Union. We have the private sector knowledge – if I look at you assembled here in this room, there is a huge amount of knowledge and scientific innovation capacity. And we have competent national authorities. So what we need now is to bring all these elements together and to underpin them with massive investment funding.

Let me give you some examples: Take the European Innovation Council that, for example, supports now the highly innovative SMEs in the area of infectious diseases. Or just recently, this European Innovation Council announced financial support for a Belgian biotech company that develops tools for precision microbiome profiling. And of course, then there is our huge Recovery Fund, we call it NextGenerationEU – EUR 800 billion in today’s prices. And here, the Member States are using these funds indeed to make them available to the research community to build resilient healthcare capacities and to invest in innovation. Belgium, for example, Prime Minister, I was very happy to see, is investing in a biotech school. Or you are investing in research and development supporting the production of medical radioisotopes. So all this, taking the research capacities and joining them with the necessary funding, bringing it all together, helps us to better prepare for future health threats. And I think that there is no better return on investment than that.

Distinguished guests,

This is our European way to do things: While, of course, repairing the damage of the crisis, we are investing in a better future. And it is great to see that, with this Biopharma Platform you are creating today, you are also going in absolutely the same direction. So I count on Belgium to continue to drive European cooperation in the future. I count on Belgium to enrich EU programmes, for example like Horizon Europe. I count on you to engage in our new HERA initiative. And, of course, I count on you to mobilise your brilliant researchers and entrepreneurs.

I especially welcome the ideas you develop in your strategy on how to address potential vulnerabilities in our supply chains. This is also a big topic. I will not go in depth, but this will be also a big topic at the G20 Summit this weekend in Rome. The supply chains that have been interrupted by the lockdowns and the COVID-19 pandemic all over the world. And we see now how difficult it is to bring them back in place. But what we also learn is our huge dependency on supply chains. So we have to look at how to diversify our supply chains, how to strengthen them. I am not talking about only onshoring them, that is not the solution, but to be more diverse in the supply chain, to have a strategic reserve that is here on the continent, but also to be able to strengthen our supply chains. That will be one of the big lessons we have to learn from this pandemic. So I want you to know, as I have looked at the concept of this Platform, that whatever your plan is, also regarding the supply chain, from strategic stockpiles to the ramping up of the local production, rest assured that you have the full support of the European Commission.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Extending our positions as leading biopharma hubs will bring benefits to all: Patients get a higher quality of care, they get an easier access to innovative therapies. The economy gets a boost, as we will attract, not only the funding I was just describing, but of course also international investment. And our society at large benefits from this tightly woven network you have of research institutes and enterprises. We are in this together. A strong Belgium makes our Union stronger. And a strong Union makes Belgium stronger. So let us get to work.

Thank you very much for the attention.

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