UAntwerpen and IMM/Unity consortium kick off construction of innovative vaccine centre
On Monday, the University of Antwerp (UAntwerpen) and IMM/Unity consortium symbolically kicked off the construction of Vaccinopolis. an innovative centre for testing candidate vaccines that is scheduled to open its doors on 1 March 2022. “The world has a genuine need for this infrastructure,” says Pierre Van Damme, the driving force behind the centre.
Vaccine development is one of the major global challenges of today. “The coronavirus has forced us to face the facts,” says vaccinologist Pierre Van Damme (UAntwerpen). “But this realisation is nothing new. The climate is changing, people are living closer together, we are travelling more often and living to a much older age. All of these evolutions contribute to a faster and wider spread of viruses.”
The University of Antwerp has been cultivating plans for the establishment of an innovative vaccine centre for some time. The coronavirus accelerated the process: the Belgian government is investing €20 million in the establishment of a European anti-infection unit, with specialised infrastructure in Antwerp (UAntwerpen) and Brussels (Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB)). Contributions are also being made by private partners.
Vaccinopolis, to be built at Campus Drie Eiken, will be one of the most unique academic testing facilities on the European mainland. The complex will have 30 beds and will carry out CHIM studies. CHIM stands for Controlled Human Infection Models.
Van Damme explains, “There will also be ‘human challenge’ studies, by which a vaccine or placebo is administered to healthy test subjects that ‘challenges’ them through exposure to a weakened version of a particular pathogen or the original pathogen once effective treatment is available. Thanks to these innovative studies, vaccines can be developed and tested more quickly and the method used is also relatively cheap.”
“If mutant strains emerge – which couldn’t be more relevant today – it will be possible to quickly determine whether the recently developed vaccines still offer protection. There is a genuine need for this type of infrastructure, evidenced by the continuous requests we receive for new vaccine studies, which we’re currently carrying out at the old location.”
Time capsule in the ground
On Monday 25 January, the symbolic kick-off to construction took place. Van Damme was assisted by Dean Herman Van Goethem and General Administrator Bart Heijnen. On behalf of the construction consortium, Koen Coekelbergs from IMM/Unity, the project director of Jansen Cleanrooms and Kevin De Hainaut, CEO of Cordeel Zetel Temse, rolled up their sleeves for the occasion. Together they set a time capsule containing a message to future earth inhabitants in concrete. The message on the impact of the coronavirus on our society was written by sociologist Walter Weyns (UAntwerpen).
Making Vaccinopolis a reality is no small feat. “Normally, this kind of DBM project takes four to five years,” explains Kevin De Hainaut (Cordeel). “But the circumstances are anything but normal: COVID-19 has proven that viruses can strike quickly and unexpectedly. All project partners have pulled together to drastically shorten the turnaround time.” Koen Coekelbergs (Jansen Cleanrooms) is eager to sink his teeth into this prestigious project: “The challenge is to reconcile the extremely short turnaround time with the required biotechnological safety level 3.”
Design, Build & Maintain
So, IMM/Unity will be up and running in 14 months. “Vaccinopolis will be opening its doors on 1 March 2022,” says architect Roy Pype (Proof of the sum) in anticipation. “We’re using a ‘Design, Build & Maintain’ formula (DBM) for this project. “Proof of the sum, Exilab, Abstract Architects, burO Groen and Establis are responsible for the integral design (Design). The construction (Build) will be in the hands of Jansen Building Group, Jansen Cleanrooms and Cordeel and finally, Imtech Belgium will be taking care of the maintenance for 15 years (Maintain).”