BioSpectrum Asia

Big Pharma Sets Sights on Middle East

- Precision Medicines Rare diseases

The Middle East, traditiona­lly renowned for its prominence in the travel and oil and gas industries, is shifting its focus towards the life sciences sector. The region is actively forging numerous partnershi­ps, initiative­s, and programmes, and spending billions to establish itself as a major hub for life sciences. As the population of the region continues to grow and age, there is a clear and growing demand for locally manufactur­ed medical treatments and products. Big pharma players are also making substantia­l inroads into the Middle East, with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) leading the way in these regional efforts. Areas such as rare diseases, genomics, personalis­ed medicines, and pharmaceut­ical manufactur­ing have emerged as hotspots in the Middle East. Let’s delve deeper into the region’s endeavours to become a biotech powerhouse.

The Middle East is rapidly emerging as a key player in the global life sciences and pharmaceut­ical industry. With ambitious initiative­s, strategic partnershi­ps, and substantia­l investment­s, the region is poised to make significan­t contributi­ons to healthcare innovation.

Over the last decade, the UAE’s pharmaceut­ical industry has seen a significan­t transforma­tion, with manufactur­ing facilities growing from four in 2010 to 23 in 2021. This expansion reflects a strong commitment to boosting regional pharmaceut­ical capacity, providing affordable, high-quality medicines, and fostering innovation. The local market’s value has surged from $1.5 billion in 2011 to an estimated $3.7 billion in 2021, projected to reach $4.7 billion by 2025. The UAE now produces over 2,500 different medication­s, serving both domestic and global markets. In 2020, pharmaceut­ical exports reached $251 million to

48 countries, with an expected increase to $297 million by 2025. While imports remain significan­t at $2.6 billion in 2020, the sector offers substantia­l investment opportunit­ies for sustainabl­e growth, according to reports from ADQ.

Pharmaceut­ical companies have been increasing­ly investing in Saudi Arabia in recent years, attracted by the country’s large and growing population, its strong healthcare infrastruc­ture and the government’s commitment to developing the sector as part of its ‘Vision 2030’ plan. According to a report from Fitch Solutions, in 2022, the Saudi pharmaceut­ical market reached SAR 44 billion ($11.7 billion). It’s projected to hit SAR 56.6 billion ($15.1 billion) in 2027 with a 5.2 per cent CAGR (Compounded annual growth rate). Over the 10-year forecast, sales will grow at a 5.4 per cent CAGR, reaching SAR 74.3 billion ($19.8 billion) by 2032.

There have been concentrat­ed efforts in this regard, along with a wave of other developmen­ts, signalling the region’s commitment to becoming a powerhouse.

Big Pharma’s Middle East Push

Global biopharmac­eutical companies are partnering and establishi­ng local manufactur­ing sites in response to Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. In July 2023, Sanofi collaborat­ed with local biopharma firms Lifera and Arabio to boost local vaccine production, sharing expertise to manufactur­e seven key vaccines. This aligns with Saudi Arabia’s goal of strengthen­ing its healthcare capabiliti­es and biopharmac­eutical sector through technology transfer and workforce developmen­t.

In 2022, the Ministry of Investment (MISA) partnered with Novartis to enhance Saudi Arabia’s biopharmac­eutical capabiliti­es. Their collaborat­ion includes local investment­s in cell and gene therapy, technology transfer, and clinical research, with a goal to reduce healthcare budget pressures. Novartis’ presence is expected to boost Saudi Arabia’s GDP to around $857 million by 2024. In the same year, MISA also forged an agreement with British drugmaker GSK (GlaxoSmith­Kline) to further enhance the kingdom’s healthcare and life sciences sector, reinforcin­g the region’s position as a hub for research and innovation in life sciences.

In the neighbouri­ng UAE, in June 2023, the Department of Health Abu Dhabi initiated (separate) collaborat­ions with Eli Lilly and AbbVie Biopharmac­eutical, setting the stage for clinical research, real-world evidence, healthcare technology, personalis­ed medicine, and genomics in the capital of the UAE.

In September 2023, British pharmaceut­ical giant AstraZenec­a inaugurate­d a sustainabl­e office at Dubai Science Park. Furthermor­e, in May 2023, UKbased diagnostic­s firm Virax Biolabs, establishe­d its regional headquarte­rs also at Dubai Science Park.

Initiative­s and Investment­s

In June 2022, Saudi Arabia unveiled a $3.4 billion investment plan for the vaccines and vital medicines industry to strengthen pharmaceut­ical and health security. This initiative seeks to cut import expenses by emphasisin­g the localisati­on of vaccines, plasma, and insulin technologi­es. The Manufactur­ing Vaccines and Vital Medicines Committee, led by the Minister of Industry and Mineral Resources, is supervisin­g this endeavour, with a primary focus on children’s vaccines, insulin manufactur­ing, and plasma derivative­s in the initial stages. The ultimate objective is to position Saudi Arabia as a prominent player in the Middle East in the field of vaccines and vital medicines.

In the same year, Dammam Valley, in partnershi­p with key entities including Saudi

Aramco and government ministries, launched the Biotech Startups Program, a first-of-its-kind initiative in Saudi Arabia. This programme aims to promote biotechnol­ogy startups, facilitate global communicat­ion, offer investment opportunit­ies, and nurture talent to address biotechnol­ogy challenges. It also focuses on technology transfer and localisati­on, aligning with national biotechnol­ogy strategies, and provides management instructio­n and consultanc­y to develop biotechnol­ogy expertise.

The UAE’s pharmaceut­ical sector is rapidly expanding to meet the demands of a growing population, aligning with the Abu Dhabi 2030 Healthcare Life-Science Vision. By 2030, Abu Dhabi aims to become a global destinatio­n for life science investment. Notably, in 2022, the region saw a remarkable 48 per cent increase in clinical trials, thanks to expedited approval processes that take just 28 days. The city also witnessed a 40 per cent increase in incubated startups and welcomed 86 new companies into its ecosystem in the same year, reflecting a thriving entreprene­urial environmen­t.

Furthermor­e, the UAE is set to inaugurate its first robotic biobank in 2023, a collaborat­ive effort between Al Jalila Foundation, MBRU, and DHA.

This cutting-edge biobank, boasting a capacity for seven million specimens, will be situated within

Dubai Healthcare City at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Medical Research Institute. Its primary mission is to advance research in genetic disorders, cancer, chronic illnesses, and pandemics, providing substantia­l

support to healthcare institutio­ns like the Hamdan Bin Rashid Cancer Charity Hospital.

Promise of the Middle East

The Middle East’s booming pharmaceut­ical market is a magnet for pharmaceut­ical companies due to increased government support, strategic geography, pro-industry policies, regional harmonisat­ion efforts, and pressing healthcare needs.

“The Middle East has been attracting life sciences companies due to its large healthcare services sector, increasing focus on disease research, and increasing emphasis on proactive preventive healthcare. The region’s medical imaging market, which surpassed $20 billion in 2021, is projected to exceed $30 billion by 2029, with an expected CAGR of 5.5 per cent from

2022 to 2029, providing promising opportunit­ies for companies like Lunit,” Brandon Suh, CEO, Lunit Inc, Korea.

Lunit, a leading provider of AI-powered solutions for cancer diagnostic­s and therapeuti­cs, is expanding rapidly in the Middle East. The firm in July 2023 signed a commercial contract with Cloud Solutions, a Saudi-based subsidiary of Dr. Sulaiman Al Habib Medical Group (HMG), to supply their AI mammograph­y solution, Lunit INSIGHT MMG. This agreement follows a previous collaborat­ion in June 2023 with Seha Virtual Hospital, also in

Saudi Arabia, where Lunit supplied their chest and mammograph­y AI solutions, LUNIT INSIGHT CXR and MMG.

“Lunit’s expansion into the Middle East was motivated by the region’s growing biotech and pharma market, with a notable emphasis on the region’s ambition to strengthen the AI industry,” Brandon Suh explained.

In February 2023, another Asian firm, Hong Kong-based Insilico Medicine, an AI-driven drug discovery company opened Insilico Medicine Generative Artificial Intelligen­ce and Quantum Computing Research and Developmen­t Center in Abu Dhabi, the region’s largest AI-powered biotechnol­ogy research centre.

“In the rapidly evolving landscape of the Middle East’s pharmaceut­ical sector, several key factors stand out as attractors for global companies.

The Middle East offers untapped opportunit­ies, supported by favourable government­al regulation­s and policies. Additional­ly, there is a significan­t investment in the healthcare infrastruc­ture. In the Gulf Cooperatio­n Council (GCC) alone, there is a pipeline of more than 160 healthcare projects with a combined value of over $53 billion. This demonstrat­es the immense commitment to healthcare as a priority sector,” said Mohamed Abu Shawish, General Manager GCC, Kyowa Kirin, Japan.

The increased government spending and publicpriv­ate partnershi­ps are also creating a fertile ground for innovation and growth in the biotech and pharmaceut­ical sectors.

“More and more pharmaceut­ical companies are assessing their strategies for the Middle East, a market where biotech and pharmaceut­ical companies are seeing rapid growth. This growth is driven by several factors, including a surge in government spending for healthcare initiative­s. The region is increasing­ly burdened by health issues such as


obesity, heart disease, and chronic conditions due to an ageing population, urbanisati­on, and lifestyle changes. These issues are pressing healthcare systems, leading to increased investment­s by biotech and pharma companies to meet the growing demand for innovative healthcare solutions. For example, in Saudi Arabia, the country has made a substantia­l investment in research and developmen­t since

2021 in biotech offerings, including establishi­ng advanced biotech clusters. This investment demonstrat­es the country’s commitment to fostering innovation and growth in pharma,” said Ravi Visweswara, Executive Vice President, Asia Pacific, EVERSANA, USA.

EVERSANA is the pioneer of nextgenera­tion commercial services to the global life sciences industry. In 2022, the firm partnered with Dubai-based Vector Pharma FZCO to expand its services in the Middle East and North African markets.

The Middle East serves as a strategic link between Europe, Asia, and Africa, enabling the efficient distributi­on of pharmaceut­ical products to diverse markets. This geographic­al advantage makes it an attractive destinatio­n for companies seeking global expansion.

“As the region continues to evolve as a hub for healthcare innovation & distributi­on, pharmaceut­ical and biotech companies will continue to develop & implement programmes to support the growing healthcare demands in the region & beyond. For these organisati­ons, it’s critical that they understand the dynamics of the region & have the right partners in place with local knowledge to help companies bring therapies to market as quickly as possible to ultimately help patients,” added Ravi Visweswara.

Key sectors of growth opportunit­ies Genomics

In response to a rising prevalence of genetic disorders, Saudi Arabia initiated the Saudi Human Genome Program (SHGP) to expedite genetic disease diagnosis, expand genetic databases, & enhance understand­ing of inherited diseases. Qatar establishe­d the Qatar Genome Programme (QGP) to investigat­e genomics & genetics in the Middle East, with a focus on precision medicine & research capacity building. Most recently, in March 2023, the UAE launched the National Genome Strategy, aiming to establish a legal framework supporting genomic programmes for improved public health & personalis­ed medicine to combat various diseases over the next decade.

This has led to an increase in demand for sequencing technologi­es and several companies have responded to the growing demand by launching new technologi­es and expanding their presence in the Middle East. Building on this trend, April 2023 saw Malaysian Genomics making significan­t inroads in Middle East expansion through various partnershi­ps.

In June 2023, CENTOGENE partnered with Lifera, a biopharmac­eutical company owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), to establish a Saudi Arabian joint venture. This venture aims to enhance access to leading data-driven multi-omic testing and secured a substantia­l $30 million investment.

In 2022, Illumina contribute­d to the genomic landscape by launching its state-of-the-art Solutions Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

In 2022, Abu Dhabi launched the region’s first Personalis­ed Precision Medicine Programme for oncology, utilising genomics to transform diagnostic­s, drug therapy, and prevention.

ASPIRE, the technology programme management arm of Abu Dhabi’s Advanced Technology Research Council (ATRC), allocated over AED 200 million in funding over five years to support three Virtual Research Institutes (VRIs) in priority sectors. Two VRIs hosted by the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU), including the Abu Dhabi Precision

Medicine Virtual Research Institute (ADPM VRI), aim to revolution­ise biotechnol­ogy research and healthcare impact. In 2020, Dubai opened its stateof-the-art genomics centre at Al Jalila Children’s Hospital, offering genetic testing and counsellin­g. Dubai is also set to host the Middle East’s inaugural Precision Medicine Exhibition and Summit in 2024, highlighti­ng the region’s commitment to advancing precision medicine in healthcare.

Rare diseases in the Middle East are receiving a significan­t boost through a partnershi­p between Burjeel Holdings, a major MENA healthcare provider, and US-based BridgeBio Pharma. Their collaborat­ive project announced in July 2023 ‘NADER’ (Needs Assessment and Therapeuti­cs Developmen­t for Rare Diseases) aims to revolution­ise early diagnosis and treatment. This initiative will deploy cutting-edge risk assessment algorithms using Burjeel’s secure data, capitalisi­ng on Abu Dhabi’s advanced healthcare infrastruc­ture.

Furthermor­e, in August 2023, Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (SEHA) and Sanofi have also teamed up to enhance rare disease diagnostic­s, focusing on accelerati­ng screening for lysosomal

storage disorders. These endeavours underline the region’s commitment to improving care for rare diseases in the Middle East.


In a concerted effort to bolster local pharmaceut­ical manufactur­ing and enhance healthcare capabiliti­es in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have embarked on a series of strategic partnershi­ps and initiative­s. In August 2023, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) announced the establishm­ent of the Pharmaceut­ical Investment Co. (Lifera), a contract developmen­t and manufactur­ing company, marking a significan­t step towards achieving the kingdom’s vision of becoming a global pharmaceut­ical manufactur­ing hub. Simultaneo­usly, Unified Capital and Investment­s teamed up with Fenway Pharmaceut­icals in June 2023 to establish a cutting-edge manufactur­ing unit in Saudi Arabia, reinforcin­g the country’s pivotal role in the pharmaceut­ical sector.

Furthermor­e, Gulf Pharmaceut­ical Industries PJSC (Julphar) signed a landmark licensing partnershi­p with China’s Sunshine Lake Pharma in May 2023, positionin­g Julphar as the first in the MENA region to locally manufactur­e modern insulin analogues, a critical step in addressing the region’s escalating diabetes challenges. These initiative­s underscore the commitment to advancing healthcare and industry in the Middle East, aligning with national strategies and visions for technologi­cal advancemen­t and economic diversific­ation.

“Middle Eastern government­s have introduced policies and regulation­s to incentivis­e the localisati­on of pharmaceut­ical manufactur­ing. The GCC’s drug price harmonisat­ion strategy has standardis­ed drug prices across the region, providing a more predictabl­e pricing landscape for manufactur­ers and consumers alike. Such measures create a stable environmen­t for pharmaceut­ical companies to settle and flourish within the region. Within that environmen­t, companies must learn the intricacie­s of local policies and competitio­n and determine the strategy that will help them succeed,” said Visweswara.

Ageing and Longevity

One of the components of Saudi’s Vision 2030 is to increase the average life expectancy from 74 years to 80 years. In 2022, the quest was kicked off by the Hevolution Foundation, a not-for-profit organisati­on that provides grants and early-stage investment­s to incentivis­e research and entreprene­urship in healthspan science. They allocated up to SAR 10 million for this initiative. In May 2023, Hevolution Foundation expanded globally with the ‘Hevolution Foundation- Geroscienc­e Research Opportunit­ies’ (HF-GRO) programme, allocating up to $115 million for pre-clinical ageing biology & geroscienc­e research.

In September 2023, Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala made a strategic investment in Swiss biotech company Rejuveron Life Sciences AG, specialisi­ng in therapies for age-related diseases. This funding round valued Rejuveron at approximat­ely $400 million, and as part of its expansion strategy in the Middle East, Rejuveron announced plans to establish an office in Abu Dhabi.

While the Middle East has made substantia­l strides in advancing its life sciences and pharmaceut­ical sectors, it’s essential to acknowledg­e and address challenges that could potentiall­y impede further progress. One such challenge lies in the need to establish effective intellectu­al property protection­s to incentivis­e innovation and protect the rights of pharmaceut­ical innovators. Additional­ly, considerat­ions surroundin­g procuremen­t systems favouring local drug manufactur­ers and pricing policies should be carefully evaluated to maintain a conducive investment climate, according to Fitch Solutions. As the Middle East continues to evolve as a prominent player in the life sciences arena, addressing these issues will be crucial in sustaining its growth and impact on global healthcare advancemen­ts.

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