Interview: Hisham bin Saad Aljadhey

In what ways can technology change the way medicines are consumed in the long term?

HISHAM BIN SAAD ALJADHEY: Technology is introducing radical changes in the industry and is directly impacting the type and quality of products. Major advancements have led to gene therapy, biological products and advanced therapies. However, these new health developments face challenges, including large-scale replication of treatments; manufacturing capabilities that are not easily transferable; and high prices, that can amount to SR1m-2m ($267,000-$533,000) per patient. We expect both regulators and the industry to adapt to evolving trends in order to leverage new manufacturing systems, technical know-how and investments in innovation. We also expect more than 50% of all medication to be biologically based in the near future.

In patient diagnosis, big data and artificial intelligence now allow us to predict the likelihood of a patient being affected by a specific illness. The Ministry of Health is already applying predictive analytics to prevent any increase in clinical cases. Moreover, the Saudi Health Council has established a committee to discuss both the high costs and the ethical dilemmas associated with these innovative medications. The SFDA, which is responsible for both evaluating the efficiency and safety of products, and for making sure that overall health benefits outweigh any risks, recently doubled the team responsible for overseeing these products. These bodies have also worked to make these types of medications available locally. Patients can then decide whether to buy them or not. To cover the high cost of these medicines, the Kingdom plans to become a centre for health tourism in the region.

How can the Kingdom’s pharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities be strengthened?

ALJADHEY: Offtake agreements and pricing strategies will bring short-term development to the pharmaceutical manufacturing sector. However, the current expansion of the industry, which is producing medication ready for export, indicates that long-term growth on a scale of 20-30 years will require an integrated and sustainable ecosystem; increased drug discovery by institutions such as the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology; and the direct government intervention through investment hubs, funds and joint ventures with private manufacturers.

The pharmaceuticals industry benefits from both the Kingdom’s active ingredients resources as well as its talent pool. The Saudi Arabian Basic Industries Corporation, one of the only raw material producers in the Kingdom, is gradually localising its medication production from active ingredients to final goods. Saudi Arabia has been heavily investing in education, establishing more than 30 pharmacy colleges, which has stimulated the discovery of new drugs.

What actions are being taken to effectively prevent contamination in imported foods?

ALJADHEY: Saudi Arabia imports food from more than 157 countries, which represents over 80% of all the food consumed in the country. In order to prevent the import of contaminated food the Kingdom is strengthening its regulations. Recently, for example, the Kingdom drastically reduced the quantity of pesticide residues introduced to the country in just a year.

In 2020 the SFDA started promoting the first of a series of annual global forums on food safety. This event was initially organised with the respective authorities of Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, and then France, Japan, China, Morocco and Kuwait, as well as the World Health Organisation and Codex Alimentarius. The purpose of these events is to increase international dialogue, the exchange of information, and the adoption of best practices and regulations throughout the sector. In the context of international dialogue, Saudi Arabia is now moving from a mere passive position to being a proactive and inclusive leader.