For Chinese biotech companies, the Middle East and African region’s billion-dollar healthcare industry may be a lucrative niche market. The Middle East and Africa, an early cradle of human civilisation, has in the past decade witnessed the rise of a nascent biopharma industry poised for tremendous growth. Pharmaceutical sales in the region are well on track to reaching 38.8 billion dollars by 2021, and a desire to diversify the economy has prompted innovations in the healthcare industry on a rapid scale, according to a Pharm Exec report in 2018. The major players in the region consist mainly of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.
“Break the ice between these two regions and create awareness of the quality of Chinese pharma and biotech by communicating with local doctors and patients,” Dr. Nadia Cheaib, a member of the President Healthcare Commission in Egypt and the founder of Clingroup (among other ventures), told PharmaDJ in an interview “Being involved with them from the research level before advancing to the market level will help. It will facilitate the entering of Chinese medication into the region whenever it has been highly developed for any disease researched. Of course, the scientific and economic collaboration will be mutually beneficial.”
Together, these two geographical areas are home to nearly one billion people. This is a crucial advantage for Chinese companies looking to enter the region. “The genetic and racial diversity of our region is very much welcomed nowadays in multinational clinical trials because you have a lot of variety in the population sample,” explained Dr. Cheaib. Although the quality of the clinical trials and medical studies can vary from country to country, the MEA now has over 160 reputable clinical research centers that are paving the way for more to come.
In addition to having a large population, the region also has a high prevalence of prominently-researched diseases. Saudi Arabia now has a higher percentage of obese and diabetic patients than developed countries like France and the U.S., according to a report by Boston Oncology. Studies also note that these diseases will only become more common, perpetuating further growth. The data generated in these regions are accepted by the EMA and other regulatory authorities (for example, the NMPA/CFDA in China, the FDA in the United States) and according to Dr. Cheaib, some of the medical studies conducted in the region have contributed to more than 50 percent of the international data.
It is also relatively easy to recruit patients. The low socio-economic status of some of the countries in the region also means that for many patients, clinical research is the only form of treatment available. “The compliance factor is very high [here] compared to other regions,” Dr. Cheaib noted. “Sometimes they don’t have the choice of choosing between treatments, so they are taking clinical trials as the ipso facto only and best option.”
On the downside, because the industry is still burgeoning in the MEA, many of the countries still do not have the regulatory systems in place to support full-fledged pharmaceutical development. However, according to Dr. Cheaib, this is beginning to change.
“Step by step since 2015, some countries such as Turkey, Iran, and Jordan and South Africa, took the step towards having their own regulations,” she explained. “I am observing major trend into several new countries that are starting their clinical search regulations.” For war-torn countries in the region, however, ongoing political and economic crises pose a serious threat to major progress in building up a cohesive regulatory system.