It can sometimes feel like vaccines are a relatively new technology. Even though most of us have had vaccinations in our childhood, recent events have really brought this world-changing technology to the front of our minds.
So, it may come as a surprise that a facility located at the Utrecht Science Park Bilthoven has been central to bringing vaccines to the world and saving lives for more than 60 years. A history of leading the way
Since the 1960’s, Bilthoven has been the centre of production for Polio vaccines, first for the domestic market and now internationally. Their work led to the eradication of Polio from the Netherlands in the early 90’s, and, as part of World Health Organisation (WHO) initiatives, contributed to Africa being declared Polio free on the 25th of August 2020.
As part of the Dutch government the facility originally worked closely with WHO exchange programmes which saw students from developing countries come to Utrecht to learn about vaccine manufacture. With this knowledge, they returned home to develop domestic capabilities and join the fight against preventable disease.
One such student, Cyrus Poonawalla from India, returned to India and put the lessons learned in Bilthoven to work. Founding the Serum Institute of India in 1966, Poonawalla led his team to become one of the world’s leading vaccine makers, with Serum Institute products being given to an estimated 65% of the world’s children today.
He also continued to collaborate with the facility in Bilthoven, meaning he was perfectly positioned to take it over in 2011 when the Dutch government decided to end public ownership. Poonawalla became the owner of not only the facility, but also the 40 acre site it was located on, the Utrecht Science Park Bilthoven. The facility, from then on known as Bilthoven Biologicals (BBio), retains their focus on producing polio vaccines with the team of little over 500 professionals.
Hard work brings success
In 1988, there were 350,000 global cases of Polio across 125 countries; by 2021, this had dropped to only 6 reported cases. BBio has been at the forefront of this success, distributing over 156 million vaccines to 129 countries between 2014 and 2020 alone. By continuing global vaccinations programmes, they ensure that the virus can’t reappear in populations where it has been eradicated, as Jan-Eric Zandbergen, CEO of BBio said:
“… We still need to make millions of vaccines before we can declare polio a disease of the past. Bilthoven Biologicals is a crucial supplier within the World Health Organisation’s Polio Eradication Program, and we are proud that we can contribute to this goal from Bilthoven…”
The right environment brings success
Central to this success is the unique opportunities and capacity which Utrecht offers. With the strong logistical connection offered by Schiphol Airport and transport infrastructure connection to central Europe, distribution and dispersal of vaccines couldn’t be easier.
Additionally, the Science Park itself offers strong infrastructure including utilities like electricity, steam and water at a level and quality necessary for facilities like BBio. These can’t be found on many research parks or within academic institutions. This has encouraged BBio to expand their facilities over the past years at the Poonawalla Science Park Bilthoven.
A hope for the future
The new, state of the art facilities, such as a production plant and a new laboratory, contribute to doubling or even tripling the volume of Polio vaccine which BBio can produce. This puts them on course to become the largest supplier for UNICEF and so to eradicate Polio altogether.
They also aim to expand the range of vaccines produced from BBio, enabling them to drive down the price for other vaccines within the European market.
To deliver on their promise: to make vaccines for a better world. To provide anyone, every child, an equal opportunity for a healthy start in life. All over the world.