In the Spotlight: Professor Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

  • July 7, 2021

Professor Peter Piot, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. You are an expert in the life and health science ecosystems of both the UK and Flanders. What do you see as Flanders’ biggest assets in this sector?  Do you see some best practices in the UK that could serve as an example to Flanders?

Well, I think the numbers speak for themselves: Flanders has one the most important life and health science ecosystems in Europe. Considering the number of start-ups and the foreign direct investment into Flanders, there is no doubt about it.

Flanders has such an important and successful ecosystem mainly thanks to the creation of the VIB (Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie) in 1995. The VIB is an entrepreneurial non-profit research institute, with a clear focus on groundbreaking strategic basic research in life sciences and operates in close partnership with the five universities in Flanders – Ghent University, KU Leuven, University of Antwerp, Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Hasselt University. This changed the dynamics of doing research in the Flemish academic world quite dramatically. It helped to end the traditional pillar-based way of inter-university cooperation: it is a merit-based system where it is less important who you work with, but what you can contribute and what the results of your research are. The VIB brings universities and small biotech and big pharma together. Don’t forget that we have a number of giant pharmaceutical companies based in Flanders, such as Janssen and UCB, and don’t forget that a huge part of Europe is being vaccinated against Covid-19 with a vaccine produced by Pfizer in Puurs!

The VIB has two goals: to stimulate and finance world-class scientific research, and to translate this into practical applications. That is quite unique, and in that regard, Flanders really plays in the top league. We really punch above our weight. I feel that sometimes this is something that is not fully understood in Flanders. But if you consider our achievements, if you take them at face value, it is impressive!

Another example: the Rega Institute for Medical Research at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven). There is no other institution in the world that has discovered as many antiviral drugs as the Rega Institute! And this is all possible thanks to an increasingly  attractive ecosystem for health and life sciences.

I think that this is all an illustration of how a government can stimulate research. Founding the VIB in 1995 was a very visionary initiative. I think Luc Van den Brande (former Minister-President of Flanders) deserves a statue for it! It is a complete package of measures that make Flanders a very attractive destination for health and life science businesses. We have the know-how, a supportive government,  competent people, great universities… everything you need to create an attractive research and investment environment.

Can you elaborate on some specific challenges for the health sector in the UK and Flanders? Are there areas where we can intensify our co-operation?

There are always things that we can learn from our neighbours. In the UK, for example, it is the government that is at the heart of some research cooperations . The Dementia Research Institute, led by fellow Flemish academic Professor Bart De Strooper, is a good example. The government contributes a certain amount of funding to the Institute, chooses a central research hub, and welcomes other institutes to join and share in the funding. There are several more such as  the UK BioBank, and Health Data Research UK, and initiatives supported by the National Institute for Health Research and the Medical Research Council, Similar initiatives, bringing together people and institutions who have a common goal, is not yet available in Flanders or Belgium.

I also believe that in Belgium , every patient in every hospital should be part of a clinical trial system. This is something that the UK is doing quite well, and it is one of the reasons why  British universities were able together to set up covid-trials in no time. The government immediately freed up funding for this type of research, patients were recruited, and a vaccine was developed quite quickly.

Flanders and the UK share a common problem: there is a lack of venture capital in the medical sector. Compare this to the US: there is not only major venture and private equity capital, but also considerable government support for the development of vaccines and medicines, for example through BARDA. The latter is  a mechanism we are now going to establish in the EU as well.   

In terms of cooperation between Flanders and the UK: the UK has recently opened an Office for Science and Technology Strategy, led by Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance. I think it would be a good idea for Flanders to start a conversation with them.

We shouldn’t forget the world of philanthropy either. Take the Wellcome Trust, for example. They spend billions of pounds  on supporting research every year. Most of it goes to medical research. In Belgium, we see a a more modest trend : the Koning Boudewijnstichting  (King Baudouin Foundation ) is becoming more and more important as a source of funds for medical research through specific legacies.  There is potential for cooperation there. And of course, universities, big ones and small ones, can continue to cooperate amongst themselves too.

Covid-19 and international travel do not mix well.  What measures can the tourism industry and the travel sector (airports) consider employing to mitigate this major challenge?

Vaccination is the foundation on which everything is built. We can never guarantee 100% protection against any virus, but we have no other choice than to try to get there.

I am also convinced that we will not get rid of this virus. We will have to learn to live with it and will have to accept certain risks. Testing will have to continue, and we will always have new variants. Take the Delta variant, for instance: it is circulating in almost every country already. (and the UEFA Euro 2020 will almost certainly result in major spread of the virus). The alternative is to go to Australia or New Zealand-type situations where the country is shut off from the outside world, for an indefinite period, without a clear idea on how to open up again.

I want to stress again that vaccination is the most important thing we can do. A vaccination certificate should be the basis on which we can start traveling again.

If I am going to fly again soon, I will wear a mask, even if I am fully vaccinated – just as I am already doing when I take public transportation in London. And in confined and poorly ventilated places I will wear a mask too. I have had the virus once, and I do not want to face it again. This is just one of the things that we will have to keep on doing for the coming few years. I realise that for some this is a difficult thing to do, but it is simple, cheap and without harm. But I am happy to see that people seem to understand it and seem to change their behaviour accordingly.

It is a fact that COVID will never be dealt with if we do not vaccinate the entire globe. Is this a realistic goal, and what would you recommend we do to get there?

This is a question that I am spending a lot of time on at the moment. As long as this problem is not solved in every country, it is not solved anywhere. The problem is, though, that there are not enough vaccines. Fortunately, this can be a temporary problem. It is not as easy as saying: open up the vaccine patents, and we will have vaccines for everyone. It is more complicated than that! There are huge supply chains to consider, and we have seen some delivery problems with certain pharmaceutical companies recently. It could be a problem with the supply of filters, of certain chemicals, of anything really, that could cause problems in the supply chain. Bans on export of such essential products from the USA are adding to the problem.

Take India as an example. India is by far the world’s biggest exporter of vaccines. But due to the recent outbreak of a virus variant there, the export of vaccines from India was also banned in order to vaccinate its huge population .. There are many things to consider in setting up a global production chain for vaccines. The EU on its part has exported more than half of all the vaccines created in Europe, many to the UK.

We should also get serious  about supporting vaccine production in Africa, so that vaccine distribution is not subject to political developments.  .

I think we should also be very realistic: in case the virus continues to circulate around the world, it will be very difficult to come back from a foreign trip without having to go through all the testing and admin that we have to go through now. Constant circulation of the variant can also be an excellent petri dish for new variants. Our current vaccines can fight off an virus variant – provided you are fully vaccinated , but it is entirely possible that one day a variant will emerge that is resistant against our current vaccines.

Professor Piot, you are returning to Belgium this summer.  What are your plans on a professional level?  Can you share some of them with us? 

I will remain a part-time Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In that position I can keep trying to be a bridge between Flanders and the UK. My daughter and grandchildren are here in the UK, so I will keep coming back to Britain.

At the same time, I will keep working as a special advisor to Ursula von der Leyen (the President of the European Commission) as long as the pandemic requires our full attention. I will also work, on a part-time basis, at the Rega Institute and be on the Advisory Board at the VIB, . I will also spend some time in Asia and Africa, and follow my wife Heidi Larson whose work on vaccine confidence is in high demand.

Let’s end on a lighter note: looking forward to your return to Belgium, which places do you look forward to seeing again? What places would you recommend to foreign visitors?

I grew up in Keerbergen (which is a village  in Flanders), hardly a touristic hotspot, although I look forward to visiting again. What I do appreciate during every visit to Belgium and Flanders, is that we have an incredibly rich history and heritage that are still very visible. Whether it is the Grote Markt in Antwerpen, the Korenlei in Ghent, or the Grote Markt in Brussel, I can exerience our cities’ history and I think that is an incredible wealth.

I do appreciate good Belgian restaurants. London has amazing restaurants too of course, but the typical Flemish ‘gezelligheid’ is something that I have not been able to replicate here in the UK. ‘Gezellig’, by the way, is a word that I still have not found an adequate translation for.

And lastly, I am a cyclist, I very much look forward to getting on my bike and exploring the Flemish countryside.

Professor, thank you very much once again for your time.