Entire vaccine research centre project completed in just fourteen months
On Friday 25 March 2022, Vaccinopolis opened its doors. In this unique vaccine research centre at Campus Drie Eiken, vaccines for all kinds of pathogens will be tested, which can further accelerate the fight against new and existing diseases. ‘With Vaccinopolis we put our country on the map’, says driving force Pierre Van Damme (UAntwerp). ‘Together with our partners, we want to build an innovation ecosystem for pandemic management.’
Developing vaccines is one of the biggest global challenges today. ‘COVID-19 has really made us face the facts’, explains vaccinologist Professor Pierre Van Damme (UAntwerp). ‘But we’ve been aware of this for some time. The climate is changing, people are living closer together, we are travelling more frequently, and we are getting older: all of these evolutions contribute to a faster and wider spread of viruses.’
With Vaccinopolis we put our country on the map
Together with its partners, the University of Antwerp is building an innovation ecosystem for pandemic management. Vaccinopolis is an important pillar in that ecosystem. At the centre, candidate vaccines will be tested against numerous infectious diseases, such as RSV, dengue fever or whooping cough. Research will also be carried out to determine how vaccines for diseases such as the flu can be improved.
In the brand new Vaccinopolis complex, the outpatient clinical trials of the Centre for the Evaluation of Vaccinations will be carried out and followed up. The participating volunteers in such trials come in for regular check-ups. But what makes Vaccinopolis truly unique is its ability to conduct CHIM studies.
Van Damme: ‘CHIM stands for Controlled Human Infection Model and means that test subjects are first given a vaccine or a placebo and then deliberately given a diluted dose of a pathogen. This allows researchers to test more quickly whether and how a certain candidate vaccine works. There is no comparable facility of this magnitude in continental Europe. For comparable facilities, you would have to go to the United States or Great Britain.’
Vaccinopolis has thirty beds. In some clinical trials, test subjects will spend several weeks in complete quarantine. On the one hand, this is done for safety reasons: the pathogens must not be allowed to run wild in society. On the other hand, it allows for an optimal follow-up of the volunteers.
‘That way, you can also take daily samples from the subjects’, says Dr Ilse De Coster, head of the clinical trial team. ‘Based on those characteristics, we can eventually try to predict how specific groups of people will react to a certain vaccine. Each clinical trial is approved in advance by an independent ethics committee and by the regulatory authorities (FAGG). Trials are only conducted with pathogens for which a treatment already exists.’
Different safety levels
The building was constructed in record time: the entire project was completed in just fourteen months. ‘Usually, the realisation of such a project takes four to five years’, says chief architect Roy Pype (Proof of the sum). ‘But the circumstances were exceptional: COVID-19 proves that viruses can strike quickly and unexpectedly.’
Proof of the sum, Exilab, Abstract Architecten, burO Groen and Establis were responsible for the integral design. The realisation was in the hands of Jansen Building Group, Jansen Cleanrooms and Cordeel. Together with Jansen Cleanrooms, Imtech Belgium will be taking care of the maintenance for fifteen years. The work was done quickly, but nothing was left to chance when it came to biosafety. Strict decontamination procedures are in place throughout the complex and special filters filter all outgoing air.
UAntwerp x ULB
The federal government invested 20 million euros in Vaccinopolis and in the ULB’s Institute for Medical Immunology. Vaccinopolis closely collaborates with the University of Brussels: a leader in human vaccine immunology. Henceforth they will be able to operate from a state-of-the-art immunology laboratory.
Private partners also invested in the realisation of Vaccinopolis. From the Flemish government's recovery plan, €5.3 million was also made available for the development of an innovation ecosystem for pandemic management, as indicated in the 2030 roadmap of Voka - Chamber of Commerce Antwerp-Waasland.
A park-like context
Vaccinopolis is located on the Drie Eiken campus of UAntwerp and Antwerp University Hospital (UZA). The designated building plot is located in the 'Edegemse corner'. The green park-like character of the campus is expressed here in powerful tree structures, open fields and agricultural buildings. Three sides of the plot are demarcated by the Drie Eikenstraat, the 3Oaks multi-company building and a tree structure respectively.
IMM/Unity chose to minimally disturb the park-like character of the area by positioning the building volume north of 3Oaks. This also optimally balances the visibility and accessibility of Drie Eikenstraat and existing parking P4. The chosen location respects the orthogonal urban design of the campus. In addition, this position offers a certain discretion from Drie Eikenstraat, while the panoramic view over the surrounding green areas is maximized for both staff and test subjects. A park-like context.
The Vaccinopolis team is a multidisciplinary team with more than 35 years of experience in the conduct of vaccine trials and infectious disease research. The new Vaccinopolis state-of-the-art facility, located at the University of Antwerp (Campus Drie Eiken), is constructed according to highest safety standards to ensure safety of volunteers, personnel and the surrounding area at all times.
The Vaccinopolis team has, since 1984, conducted more than 500 national and international safety, immunogenicity & efficacy vaccine trials, related to diverse pathogens (e.g. HBV, polio, influenza, Ross River, Dengue, HPV, Chikungunya, Lassa, COVID-19), vaccine formulations and ways of administration, ranging from phase 1 to phase 4 trials and involving volunteer populations of different age groups.
Vaccinopolis builds on the teams’ experience with polio vaccine studies to develop a strong capacity to conduct controlled human infection model (CHIM) studies and actively engages in global efforts to develop and/or apply appropriate challenge models for pathogenic microorganisms. The team is committed to contribute to the assessment of candidate and commercialized vaccines targeting epidemic and endemic pathogens.
14 more months and vaccinopolis opens its doors
University of Antwerp and Consortium IMM/Unity give the go-ahead for the construction of an innovative vaccine center
Press release, January 25, 2021
The University of Antwerp and the consortium IMM/Unity gave the symbolic starting signal for the construction of Vaccinopolis on Monday. On March 1, 2022, the doors of the innovative center will open, where candidate vaccines will be tested. “The world really needs this infrastructure,” says driving force Pierre Van Damme.
Vaccine development is one of the greatest global challenges today. “Corona has pushed us very hard on the facts,” explains vaccinologist Pierre Van Damme (University of Antwerp). “But this realization has been around for a long time. The climate is changing, people are living closer together, we are traveling more and more and we are getting older: all evolutions that contribute to a faster and broader spread of viruses.”
The University of Antwerp has long had plans for the establishment of an innovative vaccine center. Corona accelerated things: the federal government is investing 20 million euros in the establishment of a European anti-infection unit, with specialized infrastructure in Antwerp (University of Antwerp) and in Brussels (Université Libre de Bruxelles). Private partners also contribute.
Vaccinopolis, which is being built on Campus Drie Eiken, will be a unique academic test facility on the European mainland. The facility will have thirty beds and CHIM (Controlled Human Infection Model) studies will be conducted.
Van Damme: "People also speak of 'human challenge' research because, after administering a vaccine or placebo, we actually 'challenge' healthy subjects by exposing them to a weakened version of a particular pathogen, or to the original pathogen as soon as an effective therapy is available.Thanks to these innovative studies, vaccines can be developed and tested more quickly, and the method is also relatively cheap.”
“It will also be possible to quickly check whether the recently developed vaccines are still the right answer for mutant strains – extremely topical. There is a real need for such infrastructure: we continue to receive requests for new vaccine studies. At the moment we still conduct them at our old location.”
Time capsule in the ground
Monday 25 January the symbolic foundation stone went into the ground. Van Damme was assisted by rector Herman Van Goethem and general manager Bart Heijnen. On behalf of the construction consortium, IMM/Unity Koen Coekelbergs, project director of Jansen Cleanrooms, and Kevin De Hainaut, CEO of Cordeel Zetel Temse, rolled up their sleeves. Together they cemented a time capsule with a message to future earthlings. That message, about the impact of corona on our society, was written by sociologist Walter Weyns (University of Antwerp).
The realization of Vaccinopolis will be a challenge. “Normally, the realization of such a DBM (design, build & maintain) project takes four to five years,” says Kevin De Hainaut (Cordeel). “But the circumstances are exceptional: COVID-19 proves that viruses can strike quickly and unexpectedly. All project partners joined forces to drastically shorten the lead time.” Koen Coekelbergs is happy to get his teeth into this prestigious project: “The challenge is to reconcile the extremely short lead time with the required biotechnological safety level 3.”
Design, build & maintain
In fourteen months, IMM/Unity will get the job done. “Vaccinopolis will open its doors on 1 March 2022”, architect Roy Pype (Proof of the sum) looks ahead. “For this project we work according to the 'design, build & maintain' formula (DBM). “Proof of the sum, Exilab, Abstract Architecten, burO Groen and Establis are responsible for the integral design. The realization (build) is in the hands of Jansen Building Group, Jansen Cleanrooms and Cordeel. And Imtech Belgium, together with Jansen Cleanrooms, will be responsible for maintenance for fifteen years.”
Consortium IMM/Unity builds advanced vaccine complex at the University of Antwerp
Realization of Vaccinopolis in 1.5 years due to global urgency
Press release, October 5, 2020
Recently, the University of Antwerp was visited by Queen Mathilde. Her Majesty was given an explanation about Vaccinopolis, the progressive complex that allows accelerated testing of new vaccines. On Monday, it was announced which construction partners will be allowed to lead the prestige project in the right direction: that honor goes to the consortium with the appropriate name IMM/Unity. Due to the worldwide demand for vaccines, the partners will realize the innovation center in 1.5 years (instead of the usual 4 to 5 years), while respecting the exceptionally high safety standards.
Because the climate is changing and people are living closer together, getting older, traveling more, … viruses are created and spread faster than ever. Therefore, developing vaccines is one of the most important global challenges today. The Belgian federal government is therefore investing 20 million euros in the establishment of a European anti-infection unit, with specialized infrastructure in Antwerp (University of Antwerp) and in Brussels (Université libre de Bruxelles, ULB). Private partners also contribute.
Under the leadership of Prof. Arnaud Marchant (ULB), a high-quality immunological laboratory is being built in Brussels. From the beginning of 2021, the Vaccinopolis vaccine center will be built on Campus Drie Eiken of the University of Antwerp, where top talents from different disciplines will come together. “The complex will consist of clinical testing rooms, laboratories, offices, consultation rooms and accommodation and relaxation facilities”, explains Prof. Pierre Van Damme (University of Antwerp). “That allows us to test vaccines in quarantine conditions on up to 30 people at the same time. We will do this through the Controlled Human Infection Models (CHIM). In this 'human challen
University of Antwerp chooses experienced consortium IMM/Unity
The IMM/Unity consortium may steer the construction process in the right direction, the University of Antwerp announced on Monday. The main reasons for that decision? The experience and specialization of the partners in similar projects.
“We work according to a so-called 'design, build & maintain' formula (DBM)”, explains architect Roy Pype (Proof of the sum). “Proof of the sum, Exilab, Abstract Architecten, burO Groen and Establis are responsible for the integral design . The realization ( build ) is in the hands of Jansen Building Group, Jansen Cleanrooms and Cordeel. And Imtech Belgium, together with Jansen Cleanrooms , will be responsible for maintenance for 15 years .”
Flames for Vaccinopolis
Exceptional circumstances require exceptional measures. COVID-19 proves that viruses can strike quickly and unexpectedly. That is why the project partners are shortening the usual lead time (normally 4 to 5 years) to 1.5 years: Vaccinopolis will already open its doors on 1 March 2022 .
Eric Vanhees (COO Jansen Cleanrooms) is happy to get his teeth into this prestigious project: “The challenge is to reconcile the extremely short lead time with the required biotechnological safety level. Due to global urgency, we are shortening every phase of the process, from design (in a record time of 5 weeks) and negotiation (8 weeks) to permit application and implementation. Thanks to the prefab building system CD20, we can realize a 4-storey building in just 9 months. In addition, we respect the standards of exceptional biosafety class 3. We do this by thinking carefully about the circulation of people and materials in the building, by building critical areas in such a way that you can disinfect them separately and by choosing smooth (read hygienic and easy to clean) finishing materials.”
Belgium invests 20 million euros in unique vaccine research
The University of Antwerp and the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) receive funding for ambitious project on accelerated vaccine development
Press release, May 10, 2020
Developing vaccines for unknown pathogens and testing their efficacy is one of today's key global challenges. The Belgian federal government is investing 20 million euros in a special building and laboratories for so-called 'human challenge' research, an important instrument in the development of vaccines. The University of Antwerp and the Université libre de Bruxelles will join forces in this unique project.
Vaccines are among the most important achievements of modern medicine. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that at least 10 million deaths were prevented between 2010 and 2015 thanks to global immunization campaigns. Moreover, many millions of people have been spared the (physical) suffering that diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhoea, whooping cough, measles and polio entail.
The development of vaccines has thus been a success story. But with radical changes in population density, age structure and travel, as well as climate change and health disruptions, both old and new pathogens threaten to become pandemics that can threaten public health worldwide. The spread of SARS-CoV-2, currently affecting the entire planet, is just one example.
"We need to be much more ready worldwide to respond to these kinds of threats as quickly as possible," says Prof. Arnaud Marchant (ULB). "We need very rapid development, production and distribution of vaccines against potentially unknown pathogens, and that presents a huge challenge. As we all know by now, the race for a vaccine for COVID-19 will be at least a few months, or maybe even last a year."
Weakened version of the pathogen
A technique that will play a key role in the development and testing of new vaccines in the future is the use of Controlled Human Infection Models (CHIM). "It is also referred to as 'human challenge' research because it essentially 'challenges' healthy subjects by exposing them to an attenuated version of a particular pathogen, or to the original pathogen if an effective therapy is available." explains Prof. Pierre Van Damme (UAntwerp). "Thanks to such CHIM studies, vaccines can be developed and tested more quickly, and this method is also relatively cheap."
There is currently a lack of academic CHIM facilities in continental Europe. If you want to conduct a CHIM study in an academic environment, you already have to go to the US or the UK. Only one CHIM study has been conducted in Belgium so far: in 2017, two candidate polio vaccines were tested at the University of Antwerp in a temporary container village called Poliopolis.
"Over the past 25 years we have conducted more than 500 vaccine trials", says Prof. Pierre Van Damme (University of Antwerp).
A unique project
The Poliopolis study will soon be imitated. The Belgian federal government is investing 20 million euros in the establishment of a European anti-infection unit, with specialized infrastructure in Antwerp (University of Antwerp) and in Brussels (ULB). This initiative will enable the Belgian government and the international community to select the best vaccines to fight epidemics such as COVID-19.
In 2021, a special complex with 30 beds will be built on Campus Drie Eiken (Wilrijk) and a high-quality immunological laboratory will be built in Brussels. Both will meet the strictest safety standards. Pierre Van Damme: "We have unique experience, because over the past 25 years we have already carried out more than 500 clinical trials with vaccines. In recent years, UAntwerp and ULB have collaborated on several vaccine research programs, taking full advantage of the complementarity of both institutions. For this unique project, we will build on the existing expertise and capabilities of both universities."
No new vaccines without volunteers
The Centre for the Evaluation of Vaccinations is continuously conducting vaccine studies. Volunteers are the backbone of this vaccine research. That is why the CEV is always looking for people who want to participate in the development of new vaccines.
Are you the volunteer we are looking for? Discover the current studies or subscribe to the mailing list.