“To us, the many donations are an expression of trust and provide a psychological boost.” The contributions that the COVID-19 Fund has received over the past few months are not only an important financial stimulus, but are also a morale boost for researchers at KU Leuven and UZ Leuven, who are combating the virus together. The benefactors, in their own turn, derive a great sense of satisfaction from their commitment.
Top researchers at KU Leuven and UZ Leuven have joined forces to understand the effects of the coronavirus, to identify and apply effective treatments, and to develop a vaccine. To provide them with additional ammunition, the COVID-19 Fund was launched at the end of March. It raises financing for a variety of current research projects in the struggle against the virus and also supports the many passionate clinicians who translate the insights into patient-oriented care.
The response was tremendous. Numerous businesses made significant donations, some through fundraising initiatives, and individual donors came up with – often very original – actions to raise money. A telling example is the 103-year-old retired GP who walked a marathon in his garden in exchange for sponsoring. Two 15-year-old boys raised money in a similar way, by riding as many circuits as possible on the mountain bike trail in Linden. And Hakim Chatar, the resident DJ of the VRT programme Vandaag, pimped two chairs from the studio and auctioned them for this good cause.
The result of all these initiatives so far: the fund has raised 2,730,497 euro since it was launched in March.
Shifting into fifth gear
This financial stimulus is very welcome, virologist Johan Neyts tells us. “To express it in car terms: at the end of January, my colleagues and I had to shift into fifth gear in a matter of seconds,” he says. “My own doctoral students and postdocs normally work on various viruses. They include coronas, but also RSV, which causes serious bronchial infections in children, or dengue, which causes dengue fever. We were forced to put this research on hold so that we could focus exclusively on COVID-19.”
At the end of January, my colleagues and I had to shift into fifth gear in a matter of seconds.
Numerous other research groups also had to shift gears quickly. In these circumstances, additional means – in addition to the financing from the usual channels – is of crucial importance. “For a classical grant, simply writing and refining the proposal is very time-consuming,” Professor Neyts explains. “And if it is approved, you still have to wait a long time before the financing arrives.”
In a crisis situation, facilitating faster action is essential. Research groups that wanted to apply for financing from the COVID-19 Fund were able to do so with concise, three-page applications. The scientific advisory council that selects the projects and allocates the funds ensured a thorough but quick evaluation.
Researchers with promising projects – both fundamental research and clinical studies – thus rapidly received additional support. “This kind of financing not only enables us to act quickly, but also gives us the freedom to think and act more ‘out of the box’,” Neyts says. This has contributed to the fact that they have already achieved hopeful results in the search for virus inhibitors and the development of a vaccine.
This kind of financing not only enables us to act quickly, but also gives us the freedom to think and act more ‘out of the box’.
“What we do is expensive because it can only be done in a high bio safety lab like ours. This involves an enormous variety of materials – just think of the special suits that the lab technicians wear,” Neyts says. “Thanks to financing from the fund, we were also able to recruit more people so that our doctoral students were gradually able to return to their own projects over the summer. This is important because it is possible that a potentially pandemic virus will emerge that is part of one of the families that they study.”
A basket of motivation
The researchers are profoundly grateful for the donations. Professor Neyts expresses this appreciation, among other things, in videos of thanks. “I think that is incredibly important. These people show their commitment, and it is thanks to their support that we are able to achieve much more. To us, the donations are an expression of trust and provide a psychological boost.”
This is sometimes conveyed through small gestures. The Antoine Faes Foundation not only made a 100,000 euro donation, but also had Easter eggs delivered to the researchers. “It was more than that. It was a beautiful basket full of chocolate,” Professor Neyts says. “It was a very difficult period for us. I had lab technicians who were working one hundred overtime hours per month. We were all so happy with the thoughtful gift.”
A moving moment for Professor Neyts himself took place at the King Baudouin Stadium. During the Memorial Van Damme athletics event, with completely empty stands, he was given donations from AG Insurance and from the Golazo Keep Moving initiative. “That was a beautiful but also strange experience. The impact of the virus was so palpable in that empty stadium. It makes you realize that the virus jumped from a bat to a human somewhere in Asia and is now causing so much misery here… And at the same time, you feel the support of all those people who want to help. It made me quite emotional.”
Everyone supports everyone
The benefactors who made donations to the COVID-19 Fund include a striking number of alumni. One of them is former communication science and journalism student Kirsty MacLean. The seed of her initiative was planted when she and her partner Jan Kristof returned from a walk. “We live in the centre of Leuven, on Rector De Somer Square,” Kirsty tells us. “It was eight on the dot and everyone suddenly started clapping – it was the first time that the applause for care workers became ‘a thing’. All of our neighbours were hanging out of the window. It really affected us: ‘okay, the virus is here, but everyone supports everyone’.”
Besides her job at Libelle Lekker, Kirsty has her own fashion brand, Plus Que Parfait. “I thought: why don’t I do something creative. I decided to make a separate ‘Solidarity Collection’ and to transfer the profits. But the question was: where to? I have lived in Leuven for eight years and I also studied here. Leuven therefore has a special place in my heart and that’s why I wanted to keep it here. My partner contacted the university and that is how I found your COVID-19 Fund.”
The ‘Solidarity Collection’ is an initiative with heart, literally. “I started with one sweater and two T-shirts on which I embroidered a small heart, very basic. Because the reaction was so positive, I added a few colours and eventually made a collection of three sweaters and three T-shirts. It started with family and friends buying something, but it quickly developed a life of its own on social media. Being able to do something and feeling that so many people want to help was very heart-warming, especially in that anxious period of the first lockdown. The warm response motivated me to keep embroidering late into the night sometimes.”
The warm response motivated me to keep embroidering late into the night sometimes.
The initiative raised 1,500 euro. Kirsty has decided to launch a follow-up. “I would like to continue contributing to research. During the holiday period, I will transfer 10% of the profits to the Fund.” Since launching her initiative, Kirsty has followed the news about the research closely. “I do try to stay involved and follow everything. I also received a thank you message from Professor Neyts, which was really great.”
Kirsty’s 'Solidarity Collection’ was one of several initiatives for the fund that made the newspapers. The idea of another benefactor was even picked up in the New York Times, which at the beginning of June reported on an original idea from the ‘Belgian watchmaker Ressence’.
The man behind the watch brand is called Benoît Mintiens. “As a business manager, you try to take social responsibility,” he says. “You do that by hiring people and offering them good working conditions, but during a crisis like this one, you can do more. Our sector is far removed from the medical world: we can’t produce mouth masks or testing equipment. We could of course have supported the research by transferring a sum of money, but this was an opportunity for us to show a different side of the company to our customers and followers.”
Inspiration came from a publication for fans of old timers by the Sotheby’s auction house. “The book had pictures of cars that children who were stuck at home could colour in. When a colleague showed it to me, I thought: we can do that too, except that we can actually make the watch and then auction it.”
Ressence launched the competition ‘Time to Draw’, in which participants could colour in a pattern of the ‘Type 1 Slim’ watch in the old school way: using pencils and felt tips. “We received almost 500 drawings. The submissions came from a very diverse range of people, from children but also from other watch brands. It struck us that there were two tendencies in the drawings. One was pessimistic and dark, sometimes even with viruses drawn on the watch. The other was optimistic, with lots of colour.”
Mintiens and his team deliberately made a shortlist with four positive designs, which was then submitted to their Instagram followers. The winning design was by a 58-year-old man from England, who had included a lot of symbolism in his design. “We were in contact several times, and he is a very profound man. But however beautiful a message is, it won’t work unless the object itself is attractive. The strength of his design was that it combined both.”
For the sale of the watch, Mintiens managed to get a slot in a prestigious Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong. The winning bidder paid 45,500 Swiss Francs – about 42,000 euro – for the watch. “That is more than double the normal retail price, which is not bad at all. We do not know who bought the watch because Sotheby’s doesn’t release that information. We know most of our important customers, and it wasn’t any of them. So far, it remains a mystery (laughs).”
It gives us great pleasure to be able to say that we contributed to a possible acceleration of the solution.
After costs, the initiative raised 25,000 euro, a figure that Mintiens transferred to the COVID-19 Fund. “I have many friends who studied in Leuven and one of our employees worked at the university at one point. So we soon decided on KU Leuven when we discussed where to donate the proceeds. I preferred to donate the money to a research institution than to a pharmaceutical company.”
For his own company, these are very challenging times. “So it gives us great pleasure to be able to say that we contributed to a possible acceleration of the solution. We all have to try and do something however we can.”
If you would like to support this project, you can do so online, or by donating to IBAN account number BE45 7340 1941 7789, KU Leuven BIC code KREDBEBB, adding the structured communication +++400/0019/69745+++.
Gifts larger than € 40 per year confer a tax benefit.
If you plan on donating an amount of more than 5,000 euros, please contact us ahead of time at firstname.lastname@example.org