The new Pharmax plant in Dubai Science Park. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: The first step towards creating a drug manufacturing hub in Dubai has been taken, with a Dh125 million plant at Dubai Science Park in Al Barsha. The facility, Pharmax, will produce generic medicines for a range of chronic illnesses, including diabetes, cholesterol, psychiatric and neurological disorders, cardiovascular and gastric ailments.

The first production batches from the plant will hit local pharmacies in January.

This is the third pharmaceutical facility in Dubai, with the others being in Dubai Investments Park and in Jebel Ali. There is also, of course, the plants operated by NeoPharma in Abu Dhabi and Julphar in Ras Al Khaimah. (Dr B.R. Shetty, founder of NMC Health and NeoPharma, has in the recent past been picking up pharmaceutical manufacturing interests, including in the US.)

Dubai Science Park is building up a cluster of such ventures and research facilities within it. According to a top official at Pharmax, the available area at DSP for the hub-in-the-making is around 250,000-300,000 square feet. This is part of the Dubai Plan 2021, which “highlights pharmaceutical manufacturing as a key development sector” and with the UAE needing more “high-quality generic medications”.

“With any local production of medicines, the UAE gets to save money, by 30-40 per cent compared with imported drugs,” said Madhukar Tanna, CEO of Pharmax, which is a 50:50 joint venture between IDS (Al Ittihad Drug Store) and two Moroccan pharmaceutical manufacturing companies — Cooper Pharma and Bottu Pharmaceuticals.

A scientist at the new plant, which will run at 60 per cent capacity utilisation in the initial months. Image Credit: Pharmax

According to Marwan Abdulaziz Janahi, Managing Director of Dubai Science Park, “We’re talking to many potential partners to set up facilities in the next five years. It’s to our advantage that for 60 per cent of the medicines used in the UAE and the Gulf, the technology is easily available to produce them.

“Dubai Science Park itself has limited spaced available, but partners can choose to base themselves in Jebel Ali Free Zone or Dubai South if need be.” (Janahi is also the Chair of the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Equipment Taskforce set up to pursue the Dubai Industrial Strategy 2030.)

With Dubai and Abu Dhabi now having universal medical coverage, insurers too are pushing for increased usage of generic drugs in prescriptions in a bid to keep their coverage costs from spiralling. And wherever doctors try to suggest “branded” drugs in their prescriptions, insurers are vocal in wanting to know why.

The Ministry of Health has a graded pricing system for generic medicines. The prices are set based on the number of generic medicines that are available in each category — if in one category, there are only a limited number of options, those medications will have a higher retail price.

Going forward, Pharmax will try and bring in variations of branded drugs as soon as they get off patent. “For instance, Ezetimibe [for reducing triglycerides] will go off patent by end 2019,” said Tanna. “We plan to file a local application for a generic version as early as in Q1-2019.

“In fact, we will be filing patents on a variety of drugs that will come out of patent in 2019-20. The intention is to make generic drugs locally that are on par with anything coming in from the US or the EU.”

The new plant will run at 60 per cent or thereabouts capacity utilisation for the initial months. In parallel, the manufacturer is trying to get all of the necessary approvals to import the output into the other Gulf markets, as well as Africa and Europe.

Once those approvals come in, the Pharmax plant can scale from the current installed capacity for 250 million dosage forms to 800 million plus.

According to Tanna, there will be “limited” overlap between Pharmax’s production and those at the existing pharma manufacturing plants in the UAE. “We are focussing only on chronic medications,” he added. “The overlaps could happen with some molecules, but the market is large enough to absorb new capacities.”