Vaccinopolis: Volunteers will enter quarantine at new vaccine testing centre


A new start-of-the-art facility at UAntwerp will provide a safe environment for testing vaccines on human volunteers

Vaccine village

In 2017, a small village of shipping containers appeared on a parking lot at the University of Antwerp. It became Poliopolis, a temporary quarantine facility for testing new polio vaccines on volunteers.

Poliopolis proved so effective that the university is now planning a bigger, permanent vaccine testing centre: Vaccinopolis. “The Poliopolis project attracted a lot of attention from the scientific community, and it became clear that there is a need for these kind of facilities if we want to test new vaccines or to accelerate their development,” says Pierre Van Damme, director of the university’s Centre for Vaccination Evaluation.

Once a promising vaccine has been developed in the laboratory, it goes through a series of clinical trials. These check first that is safe, and then how well it protects against a virus or other pathogen circulating in the population.

The whole facility will be accessible through airlocks, to make sure nothing can escape

- Professor Pierre Van Damme

But sometimes researchers want to observe more closely how a new vaccine performs, or to test a vaccine when the pathogen is not circulating. One way to do this is with a human challenge study.

Half of a small group of volunteers is given the candidate vaccine, and half an unrelated vaccine, for comparison. Then all the volunteers are exposed to the pathogen, either in its natural form or altered so that that is less dangerous than normal.

The researchers can then see how well the new vaccine performs. “This offers a very quick result in terms of the effect of the immune response and antibodies that have been developed, and the protective efficacy of the vaccine,” explains Van Damme.


Poliopolis was built to carry out human challenge studies for two new candidate oral polio vaccines, considered necessary because of shortcomings in the existing oral vaccine. For each candidate vaccine, 15 volunteers spent 28 days in the container village, which was fitted out with medical facilities, bedrooms and common living spaces such as a lounge, kitchen and gym.

Since all the volunteers were exposed to the vaccine virus, it was not necessary to isolate them from each other. But other contacts had to be minimised.

“Once they entered the facility, they were exposed to the vaccine virus and considered potentially infectious, so they were put under strict quarantine,” Van Damme recalls. “The whole medical and paramedical team had to wear protective equipment so that they would not become infected.”

It was also necessary to make sure that the polio vaccine virus did not escape from the facility. Given how it is transmitted, all biological waste, clothing, food and water from the facility was collected for decontamination.


Vaccinopolis will be a permanent version of Poliopolis, able to host more volunteers and work on a wider range of diseases. At present there is no such academic facility in mainland Europe.

“There are facilities in the US and the UK, but these tend to specialise in certain diseases or ways of transmission, such as the aerosol transmission for flu or measles,” says Van Damme. “What we want is a quarantine facility in which we can test all kinds of pathogens.”

In May, the federal government announced it would invest €20 million in Vaccinopolis and a complementary research laboratory at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). This leaves a further €20 million to be found from external partners.

‘A necessary step in developing vaccines’: Pierre Van Damme

Vaccinopolis will be built on the university’s Drie Eiken campus, close to the university hospital. There will be 30 rooms for volunteers, all with airlocks so that they can be isolated if necessary, together with communal areas, laboratories with biosafety facilities, meeting rooms and medical treatment areas.

“The whole facility will be accessible through airlocks, to make sure nothing can escape,” Van Damme explains. “It will be independent in terms of power, water and sewerage, so it can be completely self-sufficient while tests are going on.”

Once planning and other regulatory formalities are complete, construction should begin in early 2021. All being well, Vaccinopolis should open for business in 2022.

A Covid-19 vaccine?

This timing might be tight if it is to contribute to developing a Covid-19 vaccine. Clinical trials on a number of candidate vaccines are already underway, and everyone hopes that the results will be positive and the vaccines approved in the near future.

But a more important hurdle is the lack of an effective treatment for Covid-19. This is a precondition for carrying out human challenge studies with the virus.

“You don’t know in advance how good your vaccine is, so both those who are vaccinated and those who receive the placebo can develop the disease,” Van Damme explains. “And once someone gets the disease, you need to be able to give them a very effective treatment.”

Once a treatment is available, Vaccinopolis could be used to test Covid-19 vaccines, if they are still needed, or respond if the virus mutates and new vaccines are required. “Otherwise, the facility is an investment in preparedness for the future, when other diseases and other pandemic situations will require an accelerated vaccine development process.”

As for volunteers, people are already making contact for future Vaccinopolis studies. “This is a necessary step in developing vaccines, and people are convinced that they have a role to play. It’s a very altruistic attitude.”

Photos courtesy UAntwerp