Director’s Note

Marc-Alain Widdowson

Portrait photo of Marc-Alain Widdowson

"Looking back at 2022, I see that after two years of working closely on and during the pandemic, the year brought some needed relief from COVID-19 ushering in one of consolidation and reflection. I’m proud to share examples in this 2022 review, of our continued impact through science for health worldwide. This year has highlighted the importance of institutions such as ITM in a changing world."

"2022 has brought the strengthening and renewal of core ITM research staff. Professors Kevin Ariën and Johan van Griensven started their mandates as Head of Department of Biomedical Sciences and as Head of Department of Clinical Sciences respectively. We were also very pleased to welcome two newly appointed professors, one in an established field for ITM, Bernadette Hensen – to head the Unit of Sexual Health Including HIV, and another professor in a developing field, Laurens Liesenborghs, to head the Unit of Clinical Emerging Infectious Diseases and Outbreak Research. We are actively recruiting other new research-focused professors, thanks to the one million euro a year structural subsidy provided by the Flemish Government’s Department of Economy, Science and Innovation (EWI), and we are boosting our research starting packages to attract further excellent talent. In addition, we finalised our new salary policy, which will increase our competitiveness and add flexibility to our hiring and promotion processes.

We convened our newly constituted Scientific Advisory Council, which provided us with excellent perspective and recommendations, including increasing the visibility of the work ITM does. Their advice will now be discussed in a variety of internal fora and with the Board of Governors for action and incorporation into ITM policy plans.

After our nimble and determined response to the COVID crisis, 2022 saw the completion of COVID studies, continued work on how to improve failings of global policy but also a move back to longstanding research priorities, with key research and programme lines continuing to deliver. ITM highlighted its leading role in the work to eliminate human African trypanosomiasis transmission by 2030, through holding a meeting of key global stakeholders. We welcomed400 attendees to our Colloquium ‘Global Exchange on COVID-19: Takeaways from a pandemic’, culminating with a high-level panel of leading experts and policymakers, nationally and globally.

Just as this pandemic was waning, another disease emerged in new populations globally. Through our trusted clinic, with strong relations with the MSM community, we were able to identify and describe the first mpox cases, and then conduct research on shedding and prevention strategies. At the same time, we were investigating and setting up a project on mpox in the DRC with our local partners. This response reflected ITM’s mission of science, impact and partnership and the advantage of a global perspective.

Other scientific highlights included the opening of a new Clinical Trial Centre, financed by EWI. The centre will be key in exploring prevention and treatment measures in Belgium that can be applied and used globally. We also became partner once again in the European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP). ITM is representing Belgian actors in this European Union project, which funds clinical research in sub-Saharan Africa.

In education, the years of the pandemic brought an accelerated move towards hybrid learning but also stimulated us to think more about how we should be targeting our education – to increase focus on a global perspective and stimulate more diversity in the student body and scholarships. This year alsob rought the launch of our new MSc in Global One Health addressing - especially post pandemic and with climate change’s increasingly negative impact - the need for more One Health expertise.

In 2022, we also started our new five-year agreement with the Directorate-General for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid (DGD) and welcomed two new partners, Nepal and Rwanda. Also new in the agreement was our ‘Synergy’ programme aimed at better bridging capacity building and research, and helping our partners everywhere become effective, impactful global health scientists.

Our office in the DRC has continued to grow and is pivotal in our sleeping sickness elimination programme as well as in our DGD programme in the DRC. The office welcomed the King and Queen of the Belgians and here in Antwerp we welcomed the DRC’s Minister of Health and the ambassador sof Mozambique, Cuba, Panama and Malawi to discuss collaborations.

Of course, February brought the war in Ukraine and increased inflationary pressure as well spiking energy bills. Ann Peters, our General Manager, successfully steered us into measures to reduce these bills, get additional subsidies and look at options for more sustainable energy use in the future. It is also part of our masterplan to expand and renew our infrastructure, and reducing our CO2 imprint is of special importance to our values. We were also able to apply the Romain De Cock scholarship to bring over a Nigerian OB/GYN physician studying in Ukraine, to continue her education in public health in Antwerp.

Thank you to all involved, with a special thanks to Cathy Berx who left as Chair of the Board of Governors and Herwig Leirs, who took over as Interim Chair for the second half of the year. I’d also like to welcome our newly appointed Chair, Jo Bury, and Herwig Leirs as Vice-Chair. 2023 promises its own challenges, but with focus on its vision of scientific excellence, impact and global partnerships, I’m sure ITM will overcome them and be stronger and more impactful for it."

Marc-Alain Widdowson