Abbas Berdi (PwC) on UAE's ambitions to build a biocluster hub

28 June 2022 6 min. read

Abbas Berdi, Head of Pharmaceutical & Life Sciences at PwC in the Middle East, venture capitalist and pharma startup mentor with the Harvard Innovation Lab, reflects on the significant developments taking place within the pharma and life sciences sector.

Emerging from the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, how has the UAE’s healthcare sector evolved during the first half of 2022?

The first half of this year has been an extremely active time for the UAE’s pharma and life sciences sector. Investment has grown exponentially, and we are on the cusp of creating something entirely new as a result – what we in the industry call a “biocluster”.

A biocluster is a life science ecosystem, consisting of public and private organisations working together to drive innovation, research, development and manufacturing. It’s about creating a self-sufficient, self-reinforcing environment where we don’t just distribute life-saving medications – we research, discover, design, develop, and manufacture them ourselves.

Abbas Berdi, Head of Pharmaceutical & Life Sciences, PwC in the Middle East

If this investment trend continues at the current rate, the UAE will soon rank alongside Boston or Basel as one of the world's top biotech hubs. Regional pharmaceutical capacity will increase, bringing with it seamless access to affordable essential medications, as well as home-grown, next-generation, small-molecule and personalised genetic and cellular treatments, with the potential to treat everything from diabetes to cancer.

What has been the driving force behind this sudden investment trend?

During the pandemic, the fragility of medical supply chains around the world became apparent. Patients and providers were suddenly left without access to life-saving medications. Covid-19 vaccine developers sprung to action and were able pull off one of the most impressive scientific feats of the last century.

Thanks to rapid scientific advancements in the mRNA platform and other diagnostic and therapeutic technologies, many supported by financial investment from governments, foundations and multi-lateral bodies, we were able to accelerate clinical trial timelines, regulatory approvals and distribution of vaccines and tests in record time.

This was an eye opener for global stakeholders and led to a renewed focus on the local supply of essential healthcare products. Here in the UAE, we have one of the region’s most robust pharmaceutical supply chains, and we have proved that our response to a global crisis is exemplary, but what would happen if we were suddenly left without access to life-saving medication?

Government data suggest the UAE currently imports over 80% of its pharmaceuticals, not only exposing the country to logistical issues but carrying a huge cost implication. Whilst there are already generic drug substitution policies in place, there remains a high reliance on branded imports.

Producing local, high-quality, generic alternatives – costing 60% less in many instances – will not only address logistical concerns but offer enormous economic value and allow us to expand the industry.

What has been done so far?

So much has been happening in recent years to prepare the UAE for the creation of a biocluster. Regulators, and sovereign and private investors have been investing heavily to build public-private partnerships with big pharma, emerging biotechs and contract manufacturers. Current and new pharma players are creating innovative biopharma manufacturing capabilities and building genome banks and clinical trial infrastructure to help make home-grown genetic treatments.

These investments have enabled the UAE’s national vision for healthcare, and it means we are now in a position to essentially skip the traditional drug making step and jump toward innovative personalised drugs targeted to our specific genetic biomarkers.

In 2021 the Abu Dhabi’s Department of Health signed agreements with numerous global pharma companies. The aim was to develop national competencies and clinical research capabilities, and advance early clinical trial and drug development programmes to ensure the UAE has a homegrown supply of drugs ready for the next emergency, whilst also driving the country’s diversification and economic growth agenda.

And earlier this year, local drug makers added hundreds of new innovative treatments in everything from high prevalence lifestyle diseases to rare genetic disorders and cancers, to their local production capability. Numerous UAE investors allocated billions of dollars to life science investments, signed licensing agreements with top-tier pharma partners and acquired rights to new pharma products.

Let’s take precision medicine as another example. Gene therapy is the future of medicine, with the potential to treat or even cure diseases like cancer and diabetes by replacing our faulty genes. But its development is dependent on large scale genomic sequencing.

We already have this underway: Abu Dhabi’s Genome Program – one of the most comprehensive genomic initiatives ever undertaken – has been building the necessary infrastructure for a high-quality baseline genome for UAE citizens since 2019. Very soon, we will not only be able to develop gene editing technology and deliver precision medicine, we will also have the capability to produce, design and manufacture the ground-breaking treatments locally.

So what needs to happens next?

To become a true biocluster, we need to develop the sector through the lens of an entire ecosystem. This means collaboration among public and private sectors and academia, to ensure clinical research is robust. We need to promote STEM learning within our universities to nurture skillset in biochemistry, biostatistics, immunotherapy and genetics, so we have a highly skilled, homegrown pool of talent and expertise.

This local knowledge-based economy will then be instrumental in accelerating and establishing a robust life sciences R&D ecosystem.

It’s not just about building factories that increase manufacturing capabilities but equally about creating purpose-built R&D hubs, ensuring venture funding for clinical research that often has binary outcomes and partnering with academia on molecular level science to find the next big breakthrough. We must continue to invest in creating the base R&D infrastructure that attracts drug makers and risk takers to reach for those new ‘first in class’ and ‘best in class’ treatments.

Our regulators must continue to streamline drug approval frameworks and pharmacovigilance systems, and policy makers must continue to incentivise innovation in pharma and life science to drive ‘tech transfer’ into the UAE.

It is not too often we are fortunate enough to see a new sector being born and I could not be more excited to play a role in supporting the UAE becoming classified very soon as a global biocluster.