Interview: Hisham bin Saad Aljadhey

To what extent has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted medical innovation and related regulatory processes in Saudi Arabia?

HISHAM BIN SAAD ALJADHEY: The pandemic posed challenges to accessing food, drugs and medical devices around the world. The agility of SFDA was greatly tested during the pandemic, and it had to adapt its regulations to accommodate supply chain disruptions. The authority worked closely with the government and private sector to encourage the local production of essential goods, while at the same time collaborating with other governments to grant fast-track approval of foreign products and supply them to Saudi Arabia. The number of local producers of sanitisers and personal protective equipment (PPE) grew, as a result, enhancing production capacity to a level that allowed for export. Moreover, safety gowns and gloves were manufactured at a military garment facility.

The SFDA is working with the Ministry of Energy; Ministry of Industry and Mineral Resources; Saudi Aramco; SABIC and local chemical companies to source active ingredients for medication and materials for PPE to facilitate local production. Through a joint venture with the global medical device company Medtronic, ventilators are being manufactured in Saudi Arabia today, with the aim to expand production to a scale sufficient to supply the entire Middle East region. Indeed, the health crisis created significant investment opportunities in the Kingdom for drug and medical device production, as well as biotechnology.

Where can technological innovation maximise product safety at a time when local food and drug production is increasing?

ALJADHEY: Technology has made business processes seamless and effective, even in the face of disruptions associated with the pandemic. In addition to holding meetings with importers and companies that export to Saudi Arabia, the SFDA adopted technological tools to conduct remote inspections of medical device manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies and food producers’ facilities. Access to food and sanitation products was enhanced by mobile applications that helped consumers find pharmacies and stores with stock, especially during peaks of the virus. There are plans to create a similar platform for consumers to have enhanced access to prescription medication.

What are the most important sustainability-related considerations to take into account when regulating the food and drug industries?

ALJADHEY: Sustainability ensures that products are ethically produced, taking into consideration how their raw materials are sourced, and how and where they are manufactured. The SFDA – in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture; drug manufacturers and food vendors – controls the destruction of expired products and works to reduce food waste, which is part of wider efforts to mitigate the impact of hazardous materials on the environment. The SFDA also conducts research to understand a product’s ingredients and extend its shelf life, where safe, to encourage the reduction of waste.

How is Saudi Arabia positioning itself within the international halal industry, and how can the regulatory framework be improved in this area?

ALJADHEY: While the international halal industry is fragmented, there is increasing demand for its products by both Muslims and non-Muslims due to its reputation for high quality. The SFDA is collaborating with local and international partners to harmonise the global regulatory framework and accreditation processes. There are plans to launch a halal centre in Saudi Arabia, set up a platform to verify halal products and boost investment in the segment. Blockchain technology can also contribute to the industry, as it will make tracing products from the farm to table easier.