The speed with which vaccines were brought to market to combat COVID-19 highlighted the depth of infrastructure that was already in place to tackle such a crisis. The UAE needs to create a similar enabling eco-system. Image Credit: AFP

The pharmaceutical industry is at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 - and this emphasises the growing need for greater research and development in the Arab world.

The West leads the way in medical innovation. Most of the top pharmaceutical or medical technology patents are held by US or European conglomerates. The biggest pharma companies too - Pfizer, Roche, Merck and Novartis - are American or European.

These are achievements the Middle East can emulate.

Pfizer, Moderna, Sinopharm and AstraZeneca have put science in the global spotlight. As vaccines are rolled out globally – with the UAE among the world’s leading countries for per capita vaccine administration – many of us can see light at the end of the tunnel. We are turning a corner in the fight against this pandemic… but we cannot let up.

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Framework was there

That it took less than a year to vaccinate the first person after the virus’ genetic sequence was made public will go down as a historic moment for pharmaceutical innovation. But the success of medical progress can be attributed to the infrastructure, robust regulations and maturity of nations such as the US and the UK.

Such ecosystems, however, are not built in silos. They are the result of years of strategic cooperation and interdependence, involving a plethora of stakeholders. It takes many hands to create a successful medical ecosystem and you need policymakers, regulators, manufacturers, entrepreneurs, disrupters and major decision-makers all pulling in the same direction.

Such progress is further supported by a culture of innovation, entrepreneurship, and an emphasis on education, training and development.

Future proofing

The UAE has greatly accelerated its efforts to establish itself as a world-class medical and pharmaceutical hub. Our leadership has taken big steps to encourage science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education among younger generations, and equip them with future-proof skills necessary to face challenges.

Plans such as the UAE Vision 2021, Centennial 2071, the Dubai Industrial Strategy, and the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy have been implemented to further develop our knowledge-based economy. The government has also issued laws to streamline the process of registering intellectual property and patents.

Channelling resources

Additionally, the UAE’s medical industry has increased investment in clinical trials and manufacturing – most recently, Phase III clinical trials of a Russian adenovirus-based vaccine commenced in the UAE. We’re also leveraging our strong bilateral relationship with China for an inactivated vaccine trial conducted by Sinopharm, the Abu Dhabi Government and artificial intelligence company G42 Healthcare.

Figures also show that the UAE’s healthcare infrastructure is steadily evolving and growing to become an increasingly competitive destination for investment and innovation. Recently, it was found that the UAE ranks highest among GCC countries in medical tourism.

Committing more

Moreover, investments in the region’s healthcare sector are expected to be worth $89 billion by 2022, representing an overall increase of nearly 50 per cent from 2013, according to a report by KPMG. This represents the strong investment potential in the UAE’s health and pharma infrastructure, driven by the momentous impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

It also points to the growing role the Arab world can play in medical innovation.

Cluster approach

Our business district boosts the development of this ecosystem and the national effort towards science. Three R&D centres for top global manufacturers are under construction in Dubai Science Park – India’s Himalaya Drug Company; paints and powder coatings giant Jotun Group; and Firmenich, the world’s largest privately-owned fragrance and flavour company.

These firms are highlighting the UAE's growing capabilities as an R&D hub by choosing Dubai as a base for their cutting-edge research. In addition, French medical giant Sebia – the world’s leading provider of advanced medical equipment for in-vitro diagnostic testing – opened its first GCC office in our community, while Alliance Global installed a high-end Next Generation Sequencing system platform at Igenomix earlier this year.

These show that the UAE is certainly making strides on its journey to become a global capital for medical research and development. However, this process could be greatly expedited through increased collaboration, and by leveraging key strengths where they exist – such as increasing cooperation with public and private universities for tailored STEM education and research; maximising partnerships with public and private hospitals; attracting investments from and facilitating alliances between local and international pharmaceutical companies; and boosting international relations for greater knowledge and talent-sharing initiatives.

With time, and continued investment in cross-collaboration, I am confident we will see the UAE establish itself on the global map as a centre for medicine, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and innovation.

- Marwan Abdulaziz Janahi, Managing Director, Dubai Science Park.