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PUURS, Belgium — The future of the world depends on a Belgian town so small that its parking lot is named Dorpshart, the « heart of the village. »
It is in Puurs, a town of 17,000 in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, that America’s Pfizer will manufacture a coronavirus vaccine created with Germany’s BioNTech that is now hailed as one of the front-runners to liberate the world from lockdowns.
Don’t feel too bad if you’ve never heard of Puurs. Within Belgium, it is mostly known for its skull-splittingly potent Duvel beer, which according to an urban legend owes its name to someone calling it « a true devil » thanks to its alcohol percentage of 8.5 percent. (The name means devil in Dutch.)
Thanks to the crisis, there’s no chance of meeting the mayor, Koen Van den Heuvel, for a bottle of Duvel in De Vierklaver, the pub opposite the town hall, so we meet in his office where he now spends his days dealing with international media requests from Norwegian television to Britain’s Daily Mail.
They all have one question: Why did Pfizer pick this town (together with its Kalamazoo site in Michigan) to produce the vaccine?
Van den Heuvel doesn’t mind telling the story over and over, proud as he is of the spotlight on his town. He has been the mayor for 24 years, and his name is so intertwined with the town that his center-right party participated in the last local elections under the name #teamkoen.
He takes evident relish in talking about the town’s pharmaceutical boom. It allows him to take the focus off less pleasant aspects of life there, like handling the fall-out from recent extreme-right protests. When Flanders’ hot-button migration issues rocked the usually quiet town, Van den Heuvel even briefly had police protection because of threats against him. Against that troubled backdrop, talking about the Pfizer plant and the country’s industrial heritage allows him to discuss a big Belgian success story.
He kicks off at the end of the 19th century, when Puurs was just farmland and felt like « the end of the world » — his words, not ours. That all changed when the town was connected to the port city of Antwerp by train and by a string of new roads in the middle of the 20th century, thanks to which Puurs is now in a sweet spot between Brussels Airport and the port of Antwerp.
« Thanks to those investments, you can export products from here by ship and by plane in a fairly quick way, which is a major asset if you’re producing something that’s exported globally, » said Van den Heuvel.
In the same period, the Belgian government launched a series of laws to make the country more attractive for foreign investments. In the aftermath of the Marshall Plan, investments from foreign medical and chemical companies such as Alcon and Upjohn started to pour into the region. While some have left, others, like Pfizer, have flourished.
The initial investment from Upjohn, which was later acquired by Pfizer, in 1963 eventually led to Pfizer Puurs becoming one of Pfizer’s largest production and packaging sites worldwide. More than 400 million doses of vaccines and medicines are produced in Puurs every year and the number of employees has doubled in the last 10 years, bringing the total to almost 3,000. Once the production volume of the vaccine increases, that number might rise further in the coming months, according to Pfizer spokesperson Koen Colpaert.
A very Belgian business
According to Colpaert, the company continues to invest in Belgium thanks « to the high-tech expertise and training of its staff and the high level of academic research. »
Pfizer Puurs is part of a bigger pharma ecosystem in Belgium. The country ranks in the EU’s top three for the export of pharmaceuticals, together with Germany and Ireland. Big pharma names such as Janssen, Biocartis, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline all go back to a long tradition in pharmaceuticals in the country, both in production as in research and development.
Frank Beckx, head of the chemical federation in Flanders, calls it a « pharma legacy » which harks back to iconic figures such as Paul Janssen, the founder of Janssen Pharmaceutica, which is now a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. According to Beckx, it’s no coincidence that there are so many Belgians among the big names in the industry: Paul Stoffels, the chief scientific officer of Johnson & Johnson; Peter Piot, who helped discover the Ebola virus and is now a special adviser on the coronavirus to the European Commission president; and Bruno Holthof, who leads the Oxford University Hospitals, which is also close to a breakthrough on a coronavirus vaccine with AstraZeneca.
« The pharma sector is definitely thriving, » said Flemish Economy Minister Hilde Crevits, who pointed out the increase in jobs and in research investments in the sector. « We invest a lot in higher education and research, which leads to high-educated staff and academic hospitals with which pharmaceutical companies can work together on clinical trials … We also have a beneficiary tax system for scientific research and the use of patents. »
Industry organization Essenscia agrees that the government’s policies have helped the pharmaceutical sector to thrive, for example by setting up the Institute for Biotechnology. « The government’s efforts have helped create an important ecosystem in which companies, universities and spin-offs help each other grow, » said Beckx.
Last but not least, Belgium’s location in the heart of Europe obviously helps. Brussels Airport was one of the first to be specifically certified by the International Air Transport Association for cargo transport of pharmaceuticals. Half of the production of Belgium’s pharmaceuticals is exported outside the EU.
Keeping Pfizer sweet
While Van den Heuvel acknowledges his town has been lucky to have been initially chosen as a production site for Pfizer, he also makes sure that the Americans are eager to stay.
« The internal competition in these kind of multinationals is murderous, and Belgium has a clear downside: high wage costs, » Van den Heuvel said. « That’s why I make sure relations between the town and the company are as good as they can be, and over time we have created a positive dynamic. The expertise and the high focus on quality has led to new investments time and time again. »
Throughout his national political career, Van den Heuvel has been known as a business-friendly politician. That also applies to his local policy: When Pfizer asks for something, the town will do it best to do it. A road was even sold to the company so that it could connect two of its sites. When the company wanted to install two wind turbines in 2013, they were easily granted licenses, as was a recent hulking parking tower — an eyesore when driving into the town.
According to local opposition leaders, this has triggered some annoyance. « This is a very densely populated area, » said Steven Prinsen, who represents the Greens in the town council. « The back of the Pfizer plant is adjacent to a residential neighborhood, in which residents have some noise nuisance from the wind turbines. »
But both Prinsen and his fellow opposition leader Jan Van Camp from the Flemish nationalist N-VA party have to admit that overall, there is huge support for the pharmaceutical companies in the town. Together with neighbor Novartis, Alcon and the local startup Purna, pharma provides over 5,000 stable jobs, from lab work to transport and cleaning. The unemployment rate in Puurs is one of the lowest in the province of Antwerp. Almost everyone in the town knows someone that works for one of these companies. Van Camp’s father’s first job was with Upjohn, Pfizer’s predecessor.
« I’ve received some occasional criticism that we’re too willing to give in to Pfizer’s needs, » said Van den Heuvel. « But for such an icon that provides jobs for so many of our families, some goodwill is allowed. And the success of this vaccine has not just made our entire town proud, it will once again lead to new hirings. »
There is just one downside: Even if the vaccine gets the green light from health authorities, the local production does not mean better access to the vaccine for those in the town.
« When Studio 100, a leading Belgian entertainment company (which also has its headquarters in the province of Antwerp), showed its popular musicals in Puurs, residents had early and cheaper access, » said Van den Heuvel. « I’ve already received some demands asking whether I can arrange something similar with Pfizer. But pulling strings will be near impossible this time. »
This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email (email protected) for a complimentary trial.