There was a time when Belgian beer had to defend tooth and nail from fierce competition. During the First World War, Brussels was seduced by the chosen coming from the other side of the English Channel. The brasseries they were immediately on guard. It was then that one of the Moortgart brothers, the second generation of a Flanders brewing family, decided to take a step forward: he packed his bags and traveled to Scotland, where he lived an odyssey to get a taste of the yeast that was conquering the palate. of the Belgians. After returning to his village, Puurs, he began an investigation that would take him five years, until he came up with the recipe for the celebrated Duvel. With it, he not only reconquered the bars of Brussels, but also those of London, Tokyo or New York.
A century later, Puurs has come up with the perfect formula again and prepares large packages that cross the English Channel. Only this time, research efforts have resulted in the long-awaited first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. The municipality, of about 16,000 inhabitants, is home to one of only two production centers in the world for the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech. The other is thousands of miles away, in Michigan. For now, from Puurs, only the first consignments of an amount that will reach 50 million doses for the remainder of the year and 1.3 billion in 2021 have left for London to supply Europe and, if necessary, the United States. The British press, which has rediscovered the town that a century ago went there to get hold of its secret, has even elevated Puurs as “the municipality that is going to save the world.”
In front of the factory, televisions from around the world crowded last Wednesday, whose correspondents in Brussels reported on the green light that the United Kingdom has given to the vaccine that was going to leave that factory that will soon turn 60 years old. Its spokesman, Koen Colpaert, explains that Pfizer’s commitment to Belgium dates back even somewhat earlier, to the 1950s. After World War II, the American big pharmaceuticals landed in Belgium, attracted by a country with a great chemical tradition around Antwerp and with good port and airport communications. Among those companies was Pfizer, which first opened an office in Brussels and then took over the Puurs plant. The opening of these subsidiaries, however, was only the embryo of a powerful sector that today is in full swing due to its role in the development of the vaccine. “Belgium is going to play an important role,” the Prime Minister, Alexander de Croo, recently predicted.
The factory is on the outskirts of a village with low but splendid houses. Its mayor, the conservative Koen Van den Heuvel, can take heart that unemployment is practically non-existent in the town. “I am proud that Pfizer decided to manufacture its vaccine here. The neighbors of Puurs are too. And in such a hard period for us, it helps us a lot to know that we are making a product that will be key for the future ”, explains the mayor. The attitude of the neighbors, however, points more to curiosity about the parade of foreign journalists who have been investigating streets that the pandemic has practically emptied. “Just a little while ago a Norwegian journalist came in to buy,” the owner of a bakery briefly dispatches.
The widespread use of aid to protect jobs on a temporary basis, equivalent to ERTE, has allowed Belgium to keep unemployment at bay, around 5%. Puurs, which also has a Novartis center, has even created jobs. About 300 people joined Pfizer’s workforce once it had to fully dedicate itself to the vaccine. “They are positions with high salaries. And that means that we are competitive due to the quality of our workers ”, highlights the mayor. The Belgian employers’ association Essenscia estimates that this year the sector has created some 2,100 jobs. Puurs is the symbol of being the first factory in the world to start distributing the vaccine massively in Europe. However, the country is focused on that production. The Belgian factories of GSK, Sanofi, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Inovio or Univercells have also been chosen to produce vaccines or their active ingredients.
This role of Belgium in the development of the vaccine is explained, in part, because today it continues to be a first-rate logistics enclave in Europe. Liège Airport was chosen by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of eight hubs of the planet for the distribution of medical supplies, which has decided to maintain it, next to the Zaventem aerodrome, as a key infrastructure for distributing the vaccine. The general secretary of the employer’s association, Fréderic Druck, explains that the country has managed to create an “ecosystem” that includes industry, research centers, hospitals, universities and administration. Added to this is the key role that Belgium already played in the past in manufacturing the vaccine against polio and hepatitis B. “In companies, people are proud to be able to fight the pandemic. And we don’t say it enough. These workers can come home saying they have done something for the world, ”he says.
Another key to Belgian success is the huge volume of investment devoted to R & D & i. “Belgium stands out for a particularly important specialization in the field of research, with one sixth of all investments made in R&D in Europe”, indicates Marcus Wunderle, from the Center for Research and Socio-Political Information (CRISP). According to the employers, Belgium is the EU country that invests the most in research and development in the chemical and pharmaceutical sector. In 2019, 4,500 million euros were spent, which is the highest amount compared to the added value generated by these corporations.
In a real estate agency in the center of Puurs, Pauline Michoel explains that she has seen on social networks that her municipality appeared in the media around the world. However, he has not noticed any change. Neither in your business, beyond the small boom that was lived after the first confinement. “They were people who wanted a house with more space, but I have not sold to expatriates or to people who come to work in that factory. Maybe these people live in Brussels or Antwerp, which are 20 minutes away by car ”, he reasons.
At the station, dozens of workers’ bicycles are piled up, who use it to go from the factory to the station and then take the train to their village. Some of them sport the Pfizer logo. Ilse Spiessens has noticed more orders at the Puurs bike shop. “I’ve been with the store for three years and I do sell more, perhaps because of a question of parking spaces,” he says before closing the store. For five minutes, the street takes on a certain life with the departure of the kids from the school, but the municipality is immediately silenced again by one of the strictest confinements that there is now in Europe. Just a couple of kilometers away, some 3,000 people work piecemeal to restore his voice.
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