Pieter De Crem highlights the many assets of the Belgian biopharmaceutical industy


On June 24th, State Secretary for Foreign Trade Pieter De Crem was keynote speaker at the Life Science lunch, which was organised by UCB, in Beijing, China, within the framework of the Royal State Visit to China (June 20-28th).

In his speech, De Crem highlighted the leading role of Belgium in the biopharmaceutical industry and the tremendous progress made and knowhow available in our country, thanks to the large investments in Research and Development (R&D) and our highly qualified staff :

"Allow me to give you just a few examples of our many assets in which I will focus on the Belgian leadership in Research & Development, and the strengths of our biopharmaceutical sector in general.


Leadership in Research & Development
Each year, about 170.000 patients participate in clinical trials. In the past six years, approximately 228.000 cancer patients participated in clinical trials. In 2014, there were more than 1.500 trials ongoing. Last year, most of the trials concentrated on testing new drugs for cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diseases related to the central nervous system and respiratory disorders. We have the largest number of medicines in development in the world per capita, the highest number of phase 1 clinical trials in Europe per capita and the highest number of phases 1 to 3 clinical trials per capita.

These and other figures make Belgium the European leader in clinical trials of innovative medicines. Worldwide, we occupy the second place, just after the United States of America. Our top position is due to multiple factors. We have, for example, one of the world's fastest approval times for clinical trials (less than two weeks for phase 1), and a very competitive tax environment, especially for research companies.

However, the main reason for our leading role worldwide is without doubt our investment in human capital. Or to say it with a Chinese proverb: "If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want one hundred years of prosperity, grow people". We have always greatly invested in human capital, and this enabled us to have the highest concentration of life-science employees in the world. They work in highly specialized research institutes, research centres and science parks. Belgium has a dense medical network of 167 well-equipped hospitals, including 7 university hospitals. 

Thanks to excellent cooperation agreements between university centres and industry, Belgian academics are involved throughout the entire development process, from basic research to clinical studies. And we are strongly committed to continue our full support for the further development of our leading role, including by bringing together universities, companies and research centres in biotech clusters.

Thanks to UCB and other major R&D actors, a Biopharma R&D platform has been created and is formally mentioned in the Government agreement. This platform is dedicated to support and promote the R&D activities in Belgium. Since its creation, the Belgian Government developed very competitive tax incentives like the patent box or the withholding taxes for researchers. Belgium is today one of the most attractive countries in the world for R&D activities. I hope, Chinese Biopharma companies will, very soon, choose Belgium as their R&D hub in Europe.

Indeed, all of these assets make Belgium a very attractive destination to conduct Research & Development. This is also proven by the fact that, despite the recent financial and economic crisis, the Belgian biopharmaceutical industry has continued to invest in R&D. In 2014, this investment amounted to 2.4 billion euro. This allowed Belgium to remain at the cutting edge of innovative treatments for major diseases such as cancer, diabetes, epilepsy and other Central Nervous System diseases.

But what exactly are the results of these investments for our citizens? Let me give you some examples that speak for itself: When we look at survival rates compared between 1970 and 2013, we see that the chances of survival for patients with Hodgkin disease have increased from 10% to 90%; for women with breast cancer from 40% to 90%, for men with testicular cancer from 0% to 90% and for children who suffer from leukaemia from 10% to 90%.

Belgian BioPharma sector's strong reputation abroad
I hope that this makes it clear why the Belgian biopharmaceutical sector enjoys a strong reputation in the entire world as a true centre of excellence. And, despite the financial and economic crisis, the Belgian biopharma sector has shown tremendous resilience:

  • As mentioned before, by investing more and more in R&D;
  • But also by generating a large number of additional jobs;
  • And achieving more added value and a higher export rate.

Today, with more than 34.000 direct jobs and more than 100.000 indirect jobs, the Biopharma sector is one of the key pillar of our economy. It strengthens Belgium's competitiveness in the world and plays a crucial role in assuring scientific progress. Belgium is the second largest exporter of biopharmaceutical products in the European Union, the fourth largest biopharma producer in Europe and the fifth largest biopharma employer within the Union. It is responsible for approximately 11% of Belgian exports. In 2014, the sector exported for a total amount of about 40 billion euro, an increase of 9% compared to the previous year. 

Although it is operating in an era of significant transformation, the biopharmaceutical sector clearly remains one of the growth poles of the future. With a very large population and fast-evolving society, China will face major challenges, not in the least in the field of life sciences. The past years have seen a rapid acceleration in the development of the health care market in China. Several Belgian companies are already successfully established in the market. However, considering the importance, knowhow and expertise of the sector in Belgium, I believe that an even more ambitious and stronger partnership with China is possible. The opportunities to cooperate with a country like Belgium and its regions, whose biopharmaceutical industry plays a leading role in the world, are numerous. I am thinking about production, distribution, development of drugs and pharmaceutical components, platform technologies and biopharma services, R&D activities and clinical trials, training for new technologies in health care, and much more. "