MEMBER NEWS: VirusBank Platform enhances society’s preparedness against future viral epidemics and pandemics

25 October 2023

Wednesday 25 October 2023, the Prime Minister of Belgium, Alexander De Croo, along with Minister Frank Vandenbroucke and State Secretary Thomas Dermine, formally opened the VirusBank Platform at KU Leuven. The main objective of this platform is to enhance society’s preparedness against viruses with epidemic or pandemic potential. The VirusBank Platform will also strengthen Belgium’s role in these efforts at both the European and international levels. 

The federal coalition agreement of 30 September 2020 outlined the establishment of a virus bank to prevent future pandemics by “preserving previously identified virus strains, which can be subjected to further research and used to accelerate the development of biopharmaceutical solutions”.

Johan Neyts, Professor of Virology at the Rega Institute, and Dr Patrick Chaltin, Managing Director of the Centre for Drug Design and Discovery (CD3) and CISTIM Leuven, have put forward a proposal to establish a virus bank platform built on KU Leuven’s existing expertise and state-of-the-art infrastructure. On 9 December 2022, the Council of Ministers granted a subsidy of €20 million to develop the VirusBank Platform, as proposed by Minister Frank Vandenbroucke. The purpose of this platform is to enhance society’s preparedness against viruses with epidemic or pandemic potential. Additionally, it seeks to strengthen Belgium’s role in these efforts at both the European and international levels.

The COVID crisis has taught us that we need to be better prepared for possible future epidemics and pandemics. In Belgium, we already have a head start in research into – and strategies against – the spread of viruses. We are now strengthening that role by investing in this unique state-of-the-art infrastructure. The VirusBank will develop a wide range of models and methods to accelerate research into (bio)pharmaceutical interventions (vaccines, antibodies and small molecule antivirals) against existing and even currently unknown viruses.” – Minister Frank Vandenbroucke.

Blueprint for viruses

The World Health Organization (WHO) has created a list of viruses that are considered a research priority, known as the R&D Blueprint. This includes research on viruses that can cause “Disease X”. Disease X is defined as “a currently unknown pathogen that could cause a serious international epidemic”. SARS-CoV2 is the most recent example of a pathogen causing Disease X. The WHO’s goal with the R&D Blueprint is to strengthen global preparedness for Disease X by conducting research and development early on. Virus families that have high epidemic or pandemic potential, including the coronavirus family, are known, and it is likely that future dangerous viruses will belong to one of those families.  The research funded by this subsidy will focus on developing test models and systems for a selected group of high-priority virus families.

The VirusBank Platform aims to support the Belgian government’s mission while also responding to the WHO’s call,” says Professor Johan Neyts. “For each of the virus families that have the potential to cause epidemics, panels will be established with known viruses that are representative of the entire family. A wide range of test and model systems will be developed for each of these viruses. This includes establishing relevant cell and tissue cultures in which the respective viruses grow most efficiently, developing so-called reporter viruses and setting up efficient assays to evaluate the inhibitory activity of antibodies and molecules against these viruses.” – Professor Johan Neyts



“In order to accelerate the development of effective treatments, researchers will investigate strategies to target different virus families during their replication cycle. To achieve this goal, they will make use of an extensive library of hundreds of thousands of test molecules provided by the Centre for Drug Design and Discovery.” – Dr. Patrick Chaltin


In addition, researchers will establish infection models in small laboratory animals for each of the virus families that are studied. These models will allow them, among other things, to analyse the effectiveness of candidate inhibitors and vaccines.  However, alternative virus infection models will also be developed to minimise the use of small laboratory animals.

Broad expertise and a strong network

The day-to-day management of the VirusBank Platform is in the hands of Dr Dirk Roymans, an R&D expert in infectious diseases. The platform will bring a diverse array of expertise and models together under one umbrella to accelerate the research and development of vaccines, antibodies and antiviral agents against both known and unknown viruses. The expertise developed at the VirusBank Platform will also be available to other parties; the platform welcomes different types of partnerships in the fight against viral infections.

The VirusBank Platform has established strong connections and partnerships with various national and international organisations and universities. These include leading international research groups and most Belgian universities, Sciensano, BCCM (Belgian Coordinated Collections of Microorganisms), Vaccinopolis of the University of Antwerp, the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, EVAg (European Virus Archive), ERINHA (European Research Infrastructure on Highly Pathogenic Agents) and GVN (Global Virus Network).

The VirusBank Platform’s scientific advisory committee is chaired by renowned virologist Professor Peter Piot. The external members are Professor Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff (founder and CEO of AiCuris), Professor Isabelle Leroux-Roels (Ghent University Hospital), Professor Steven Van Gucht (Sciensano), Professor Thomas Michiels (UCL, Brussels), Professor Alain Vanderplasschen (ULiège) and Dr Philippe Desmeth (Belspo).

One platform, three locations

The research activities of the VirusBank Platform are conducted at three different locations in Leuven. The VirusBank Platform is headquartered in the new Arenberg Accelerator or BioIncubator 4 in Heverlee. The newly built facilities include a 600 m² research lab dedicated to facilitating research on low-pathogenic viruses, as well as administrative spaces. In addition, there is the existing infrastructure of the Leuven Rega Institute for researching high-pathogenic viruses and conducting infection trials in small laboratory animals. Also, some of the research will take place at Caps-It, which is a unique, fully automated ‘Lab-in-a-box’ that facilitates high-throughput screening of pathogenic viruses. Finally, CD3, the Leuven Centre for Drug Design and Discovery, will provide the necessary facilities for working with large compound libraries through CISTIM Leuven.



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