Pierre Van Damme


Vaccinopolis is the only one of its kind in mainland Europe.

Pierre Van Damme
Unique in mainland Europe, Vaccinopolis is a scientific facility within the University of Antwerp, where Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) clinical trials (with a focus on vaccine trials) can be conducted. According to Pierre Van Damme, the driving force behind the creation of the facility, this state-of-the-art infrastructure will attract many international businesses to Antwerp and further boost the city’s innovative health ecosystem.

In 2017, the University of Antwerp launched Poliopolis: a temporary contained-environment quarantine facility for more thorough testing of two novel oral polio vaccines. For this project, thirty people were voluntarily locked into a container village on the grounds of Antwerp University Hospital. This was necessary to avoid any release of the vaccine into the environment, through faeces for example. This unique approach resulted in a very successful outcome and demonstrated Belgium’s status as a reliable partner for human vaccine trials.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in research in the area of vaccines. Thanks to additional government funding, the University of Antwerp has now developed a permanent facility for innovative vaccine testing, called Vaccinopolis. Such trials provide some of the resources required to enable Vaccinopolis to focus on combatting pandemics such as COVID-19. This initiative is a major boost for Antwerp, establishing the city’s reputation as a thriving partner for vaccine studies. Funded from both public and private sources, the project is always on the lookout for further investment from additional institutional foundations and private investors.

Leading scientist and vaccinologist Pierre Van Damme is the main inspiration behind Vaccinopolis. “After the success of Poliopolis, I started dreaming. How wonderful would it be if we had a permanent testing facility for human challenge trials in Antwerp? The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the plan and today, I’m very proud that Vaccinopolis is ready. It took us only 14 months to construct this building, thanks to all the project partners who pulled together.”

Unique in Europe

As a 30-bed BSL-3 testing facility, Vaccinopolis is the only one of its kind in mainland Europe, some say even in the world. It carries out Controlled Human Infection Model (CHIM) studies. In these CHIM trials, healthy subjects, 50% of whom are vaccinated with a candidate vaccine, are challenged by being exposed to a (weaker form of a) predetermined dose of the pathogen. All ethical precautions are taken. This unique method allows for accelerated development of vaccines. However, despite this, there is a distinct lack of such facilities worldwide.

Thanks to these studies, vaccines can be developed and tested more quickly. “The medical teams and researchers have access to numerous facilities. Everyone can act quickly, and collaboration is enhanced. These capabilities, combined with our biosafety level 2 and 3 classifications, mean we can really make a difference”, says Pierre Van Damme.

Even before its official opening, Vaccinopolis has already been contacted by a wide range of companies, from both Belgium and Europe as well as the United States and Canada. “We are taking bookings as we speak, with many negotiations ongoing. As you can imagine, we are talking about major contracts.”

Antwerp: a great tradition of health care

Antwerp is a leader in vaccine research for good reason. The city has a vast and experienced network of health professionals, with over 5,000 hospital beds and more than 2,000 doctors, all spread over 18 hospitals. The University of Antwerp has conducted over 500 clinical trials for vaccines over the last twenty-five years. The universities of Antwerp and Brussels have repeatedly cooperated on vaccine research projects. With Vaccinopolis, both universities will rely on their existing complementary expertise and capabilities, using already-familiar methods.

Antwerp is also known for its famous doctors, such as the legendary Peter Piot. However, the current generation of medical experts also includes pioneering doctors, such as Professor Dr Erika Vlieghe of Antwerp University Hospital and the world-renowned Institute of Tropical Medicine. The city is also home to many leading pharmaceutical companies and incubators for biomedical research.

Moreover, an increasing number of students are applying for courses in the biomedical and pharmaceutical field, with almost 3,000 students enrolled in medical education programmes in 2023.

The Centre for the Evaluation of Vaccination, University of Antwerp, can draw on more than 25 years of experience in vaccine trial studies. The city of Antwerp’s numerous eminent doctors and fantastic health sector have enabled many talented individuals to develop their medical skills internationally.

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