What new initiatives is Merck Serono involved in within the region?
SMAIRA: Merck Serono has a long-standing tradition and history. The company is 360 years old, from Germany, but has been operating in the Middle East for the last 50 years. We have been able to develop a very strong presence, leading to solid partnershipswith various stakeholders here in the region. One of the two biggest strategic initiatives moving forward is to look at opportunities to develop local manufacturing in the region. The other is to look at business development. Through our strong presence, we have been able to establish a strong name in the market. We are using this as a platform to attract companies that would like to come to the Middle East, where they do not have the structure or the capabilities that we have developed here, to hopefully develop partnerships with them to make sure that their products get access to these markets.
What are your expansion and development plans?
SMAIRA: Looking at the healthcare sector in the region, it is one key or core element of emerging markets in the Middle East. If you look at the growth rates of certain diseases, such as diabetes, cardio vascular diseases, etc., they have been rising and have become serious national health problems. We have a product portfolio that is really targeting these disease areas, which has given us significant growth potential in this region. Looking at the UAE, the pharmaceutical market will grow at about 12% over the next 5-year period. Our plan will be to outperform the market. We believe we have a strong portfolio and with the brand equity and the Merck name we have the opportunity to do this. When you combine the product portfolio with our long-standing tradition and existence, and you look at some of the activities we are doing, we are very confident that we are going to be able to cater to this market.
In what ways does the pharmaceutical sector contribute to the GDP of the UAE? What are your projections for the future?
SMAIRA: Looking at the healthcare sector in general in the UAE, it is still very nascent. It cannot be compared with real estate, services or retail in terms of its contribution to the economy. But, considering that the UAE has gone through a major healthcare reform whereby you can see the development of new hospitals and facilities, as well as the attraction of doctors that are here for the long run rather than just short-term contracts, these provide healthcare to the people of this region and makes a positive impact on GDP. At the same time, looking at the budget the government just announced, the share of healthcare keeps growing year in and year out. Looking at local manufacturing, we do have several companies and partners that specialize in the production of pharmaceutical products particularly in generics. I think the next step for the UAE is to look at how they can bring more innovative technologies here and produce original drugs rather than just copycats. At the same time, the UAE has great potential in terms of its geography. This could become a hub of exports for pharmaceutical products to the rest of the region, certain markets in Asia, and even Africa. The growth potential is there. We just need to make sure that the right expertise is here, the technology moves towards innovation rather than generics, and that the strong partnerships materialize between local companies and multinational companies.
How are you contributing to research and development initiatives here? Are you involved with any universities in the UAE?
SMAIRA: One of the pillars of our strategic vision is to be a company that is scientifically differentiated and that brings science to the core of everything that we do. From the moment we commercialize a product or promote a product, the data that we are using and everything that we do has to be clearly scientific and compliant within international guidelines of promoting pharmaceutical products. You obviously need data coming from research, clinical trials, and observational trials that are done with the local population considering that, from a genetic perspective, this population may be different and data needs to be generated accordingly. In terms of clinical research and scientific research, there is a lot of potential, but this potential has not been explored yet because of the weaknesses in some of the patent protection laws. The UAE would have a lot to gain from tightening its patent protection laws and that would attract more originator research. If you look at the level of the universities here, the number of doctors, and the scientific infrastructure, it is all here. What we need is the legislative framework around all of it to allow us to do this research. Another point related to medical education or scientific research is our close collaboration with international accreditation boards to give continuous medical education credits at all of the meetings and symposia that we conduct. If you look at some of the standards that have been developed by the ministries of health across the developed world, if a doctor does not complete a certain amount of credits in a given specialty area, the license of that doctor is simply not renewed. This is not always an obligation here, but we have taken notice and, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, we have set up different programs of continuous medical education. This gives the experts the latest updates in the field in the particular area of interest. So that is a very important element of our scientific approach to talking to the different stakeholders, be it doctors or representatives of the Ministry of Health. I foresee that this is something that will become an obligation in the near future.
The UAE would have a lot to gain from tightening its patent protection laws and that would attract more originator research. If you look at the level of the universities here, the number of doctors, and the scientific infrastructure, it is all here. What we need is the legislative framework around all of it to allow us to do this research.
What are some of the major challenges you face as an international company?
SMAIRA: This is not unique to the UAE, but is typical of the region. We, as an industry, sometimes feel that the time needed to bring a new therapy to the market takes longer than expected. We are also facing challenges characteristic of all emerging markets. The span of time developed markets have taken to reach maturity has been quite substantial. What you see in emerging markets is the pace of this development in terms of legislation, pricing regulations, or the overall administrative framework, is moving at a rapid pace. So we have to practice flexibility and create an agile organization that is able to adapt. More importantly, in recognition that they are no longer your opportunistic markets, where you can just be in and out, you need to have a clear strategy and a presence close to your customers from now onward.