In 2020 PharmaBoardroom sat down with several key stakeholders in Belgian pharma to discuss company strategy, the Belgian healthcare landscape at large, and the country’s role within the wider European and global ecosystem. Here we highlight some of the key themes of the discussions: innovation, generics and biosimilars, and teamwork.
Belgium is a nation that has placed a high priority on developing and giving patients access to the latest medical innovations. The country placed 23rd in the Global Innovation Index 2019 rankings (14th in Europe) and 11th in number of clinical trial participants (sixth in Europe).
Brigitte Nolet, country manager for Roche Belgium and Luxembourg, recognised the support for innovation from the country’s healthcare system, “Furthermore, having a healthcare system with hospitals and practitioners who want to be at the forefront of science and work with Roche to bring innovations into the country is a tremendous part of the Belgian story and how it wants to define itself among other countries in the world.”
Just within the last five years we have had a ministry of health that has been supportive of innovation and breakthrough drugs.
Brech Vannest, MSD
MSD Belgium and Luxembourg managing director Brecht Vannest commented on government support for innovation that has been received in Belgium, which has resulted in improved patient access: “Just within the last five years we have had a ministry of health that has been supportive of innovation and breakthrough drugs. Looking at immuno-oncology drugs, Minister De Block made the decision to ensure patients could access these treatments by accelerating approval timelines and awarding reimbursement for breakthrough solutions, especially in areas with a significant unmet medical need.”
Bone Therapeutics is a Belgian biotech focusing its research on cell therapy for the treatment of osteoarthritis. CEO Miguel Forte praised the country’s commitment to innovation: “The biotech environment in Belgium is conscious of cell therapy’s potential and it is really involved and promoting these opportunities. I believe cell therapy is at the forefront of innovation, bringing enormous value to patients, not only in immune-oncology but also for situations that requires a regenerative approach dealing with significant morbidity that will have an important impact on the Belgian healthcare.”
Forte went on to highlight the reasons behind Belgium’s success in innovation, “As you know, Belgium is the country with the highest number of clinical trials per capita. One of the elements that led Belgium to this leading position is the regulatory environment and the other is the academic environment. The country has developed a lot of academic and scientific innovation and the clinical sites are motivated, ready and competent to realize the trial.”
While Belgium excels in promoting innovation, its generics market is more challenging to penetrate. Generics companies based in Belgium shared their concerns and urged a change in policy and perspective with regards to generics and biosimilars.
Mylan’s Belgium and Luxembourg country manager Vincent Verschraegen compared rates of generic penetration and the challenges facing generics companies, “Looking at generic penetration in Belgium, there is a 35 percent volume based on publicly available data, which is low compared to other countries where generic penetration is at 80 percent. From that perspective, Belgium despite its challenges has plenty to offer and the portfolio of Mylan can further grow market share and achieve success locally.”
Innovative products are very important to the system but so are generics for the role that they play in creating headroom to reinvest in the access of innovation while keeping spending controlled.
Miranda Heining, general manager of Fresenius Kabi Belgium and the Netherlands emphasized the importance of generics and biosimilars to the sustainability and creativity of the market, “More and more innovations will be introduced in the coming years and in order to have a sustainable healthcare system, there must be a shift to better utilize generic and biosimilar products. Innovative products are very important to the system but so are generics for the role that they play in creating headroom to reinvest in the access of innovation while keeping spending controlled.”
Medaxes is the Belgian association for accessible medicines. Its managing director, Joris Van Assche warned of the negative repercussions of the current conditions present in the generics market in Belgium. “Like generics, the uptake of biosimilars is very slow and there is a lot of hesitation from the policymakers. The conditions of this segment in Belgium are quite alarming and there have even been three biosimilar molecules that manufacturers have decided not to introduce to the market… The negative impact on our segment is the very low uptake of generic and biosimilar medicines which is unhealthy, and in the long run, detrimental to the cost efficiency of the entire system. If we want a sustainable healthcare system in the future, the Belgian policymakers should definitely take greater advantage of the opportunities offered by generic and biosimilar medicines.”
Teva split off its generics business after restructuring in 2017. The generics business was taken over by the newly-established Arega Pharma led by CEO and cofounder Teun Grooters in 2019. Grooters commented on the importance of the generics business in pushing ahead new innovation: “Next, Belgium has a government that is very focused on innovation. Having spent 25 years of my career in innovative pharma, I agree with the importance of this segment, however, it is clear that without generics there is no innovation. If innovators are not pushed by generics and patent loss to create new products, then there is no innovation.”
Pharma company leaders in Belgium emphasized the collaborative spirit they promote within their organisations.
Eric Deschepper, managing director for Teva Belgium explained the essential elements of leadership, “The main job of a leader is to make people better. Empowering and developing people is one element, the other is collaboration and team spirit. These are the key to success and I hope this can be embedded in our culture. I want our team to feel respected and acknowledged for all the hard work and their contribution to the success of Teva Pharma Belgium.”
Roche Belgium’s Brigitte Nolet shared her vision for team collaboration within Roche, “One of my priorities is to make sure that each team member in Roche has personal and professional fulfilment in the company. This is about creating a culture of collaboration where we work as teams and can make quick decisions within the vision of supporting patients. We are very purpose-oriented towards our patients and their families, and the way that we work helps enhance that focus.”
We want to be dynamic in decision-making processes and we are empowering people to think outside of the box.
Allergan Belgium country manager Javier Aracil explained how the company’s value of “Being Bold for Life” is implemented in his team’s culture, “This value is of course represented across all Allergan affiliates but in Belgium specifically, we have really embedded this attitude in the mindset of the team. Therefore, we want to be dynamic in decision-making processes and we are empowering people to think outside of the box. In the affiliate, there is never a bad idea and we give the team accountability to go beyond their roles and explore what more they can do for the company and patients.”
Christos Andriopoulous, Merck Belgium’s managing director, reflected on his experience in shifting from a global role to a local one and how he relates to his team, “When coming from an international role where the background of colleagues is very diverse, there is a major cultural difference compared to local operations. Belgium, of course, has its own inherent diversity but there tends to be more of a natural monoculture at an affiliate level. Furthermore, in a global role, you operate more in a virtual environment compared to the increased personal interactions which come with working in an office with the same colleagues each day. It has been exciting for me to come to a new environment and get to know my team.”