Director's note

Marc-Alain Widdowson

In last year’s publication I said I was looking forward to an ‘exciting 2020’. Has this wish come true in my first full year as Director, the same year a global pandemic took the world by storm? We were not expecting to put our research ambition of emerging and re-emerging diseases, formulated in late 2019, to work so soon. But despite the year being hard on us all both mentally and physically, as I look back, I see clearly how these unexpectedly difficult circumstances, which imposed themselves on us all in 2020, have allowed us at ITM to show our strengths.

I saw with pride how we were able to harness and support the immediate engagement of everyone at the Institute. Our staff wholeheartedly and eagerly put their knowledge and skills behind the new COVID-19 demands and opportunities, taking advantage of funds we freed up, while staying focused on ITM’s priorities set out in our new 2020-2024 policy plans. We demonstrated how nimble our Institute can be in pivoting to help face the world’s biggest threats, while remaining firmly anchored in our scientific expertise, in our reputation as a respected partner, in our values and in our exceptional and experienced staff.

In Belgium, ITM supported many aspects of the COVID-19 public health response and research projects of immediate relevance. This included, among many other efforts, the adoption of the COVID-19 assay, clinical support to the Antwerp University Hospital (UZA), advice on treatment and diagnostics to national authorities, work on contact tracing and serology and the development of new partnerships.

We have further developed our ambitions to work with vaccines and are involved in a major clinical trial of a COVID-19 vaccine. Additionally, our multidisciplinary and comprehensive approach on vaccines, now embodied in the newly formed Centre for Global Vaccinology, includes research on vaccine hesitancy in Belgium, and also involves hard-to-reach local minority populations in the Antwerp area.

Worldwide, we have also continued in strengthening our collaborative partnerships that are the cornerstone for our work. Along with webinars and touchpoints throughout the year, we brought partners, experts and alumni together for our first ever virtual Colloquium on ‘Implications of COVID-19 for Global and Local Health and Beyond’.

We also launched our ‘CREDO’ project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). To support our Congolese partners, we procured additional funding from the Belgian Directorate-General for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid (DGD) to deal with emerging and re-emerging diseases. We have also reinforced our scientific collaboration with our Congolese partners by strengthening the administrative and scientific team in Kinshasa.

We are also pleased to have established a ‘Commission on Decolonisation’ to explore ITM’s history, our current attitudes in working with partners and how we want to act moving ahead to ensure the longevity of our worldwide collaborations. This is a staff-led initiative that represents all sectors of ITM staff.

On the educational front, we launched a new Master of Science in Tropical Medicine and students were enthusiastic to come and study in Antwerp. In light of the circumstances, we were forced to adapt our education towards virtual learning throughout the year. This has led to our developing a strategy to further digitalise our education to engage even more students.

On an organisational note, we continued to welcome new senior academic staff and unit heads. In March we were also lucky to have Ann Peters join us as General Manager who has energetically begun to review management practices and agreements so we can meet the increased ambitions of ITM.

So, it is in adversity that we have shown our worth. This said, let’s hope that 2021 sees the world find its way out of the pandemic, despite the variants that are raising their heads. As always, and as the uneven distribution of vaccines across the world is making the challenges so blatant, our Institute will be working to help address challenges of equity in public health services, disease prevention and treatment across the globe, with special attention to lower resource settings and vulnerable populations. We are proud to do this in collaboration with people and institutes with similar passions across the world, continuing our push for ‘Global Science for Health Worldwide’.

Before I sign off, I want to thank Cathy Berx and the Board of Governors, for their unwavering support and advice, and the General Council, which we will be increasingly turning to for strategic input.

And to end, dare I hope again for an exciting 2021?!

Marc-Alain Widdowson

Back to homepage