Published September 2014

Belgium, Towards a True Healthcare Innovation Country

by Stefaan Fiers, Head of Governmental Affairs, Bristol-Myers Squibb Belgium and Luxembourg and Chair of the Government Relations Forum, AmCham Belgium


Among foreign experts, Belgium is known for its beer, its chocolates, and … its pharmaceuticals.

According to the World Health Organization, five out of 100 essential drugs were invented in Belgium, whileNature Review listed Belgium in its top 10 innovative ‘pharma valleys’ in the world.

In clinical trials, Belgium has the second highest number of protocols in Europe and among the highest number of patients per capita in studies. 

And in manufacturing and distribution, Belgium holds the second position in the export of pharmaceuticals worldwide – in absolute volume! Out of every eight products that leave this country, one is a pharmaceutical.

So, it is fair to state that the pharmaceutical industry is one of the key contributors to the wealth of this country. Over 200 (bio-)pharma companies are active in different stages of the development and distribution of pharmaceutical components, creating 32,000 direct jobs and some 100,000 indirect or related jobs. With over 5,000 employees in R&D positions, the pharmaceutical industry by itself accounts for 40% of the R&D investments in the private sector.

Three elements have been key in this success story: 

  • The expertise built over the years, with a highly skilled workforce and world-renown experts at our universities. The collaboration between universities and companies most notably with regard to clinical trials is unique.
  • An open and positive spirit of collaboration and networking, not only between universities and companies, but also between government-sponsored investment initiatives and individual companies, and between the many small Belgian biotech companies and large multinationals.
  • Last but not least, predictability and long-term consistency in policy, fostering an investment-friendly environment. The beneficial fiscal climate for R&D researchers is one example.

In the last decade, and clearly accelerated by the economic crisis, some of these key success factors have come under pressure. On the one hand, competition to attract new investments has risen both on the European continent and globally. Many countries are eager to take Belgium’s place, launching strategic initiatives to boost pharmaceutical research. On the other hand, the Belgian federal budget deficit posed a threat to the consistency of political decisions and to access to new innovative medicines for Belgian patients.

The challenges for the sector are paramount. Like in the past, local subsidiaries of US-based pharmaceutical companies are eager to take a responsible role in sustaining the healthcare system for today and beyond. Many of them have been present in Belgium for more than 50 years and are at the very heart of the success story described above. They lead in pre-clinical and clinical R&D and have state-of-the-art manufacturing and distribution facilities in the country. They commit to the highest ethical values with regard to interactions with all stakeholders in healthcare and take leading positions in local industry associations, most notably in In fact, ten of them meet regularly in the LAWG, the ‘Local Area Working Group’, initiated by PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. LAWG voices the interests and concerns of the US-based pharmaceutical companies and also helps promote Belgium as an investment country within the companies concerned.

To that end, and in full alignment with, LAWG urges the new governments to guarantee a stable, predictable and reliable investment climate, based upon the principles of budgetary predictability, fair share in savings and the preservation of our leadership in innovation. Closer cooperation and partnership will be key, especially in recognizing and rewarding innovation. This will allow the industry to keep pace with evolutions elsewhere and to play its vital role as a motor in economic recovery. Positioning Belgium as a true leader in healthcare innovation will guarantee the sustainability of our healthcare system and will ensure better and faster access to innovative healthcare technologies for Belgian patients.