"We thought that Saudi had enough capital to do it, and certainly enough smart, well-educated young people, therefore, making it a great place to start a vaccine business."
What is the genesis of SaudiVax?
It was very apparent to me from global vaccine distribution that the Middle East was grossly deficient in manufacturing, was highly dependent on outside sources, and had no ability to respond to a pandemic. We thought that Saudi had enough capital to do it, and certainly enough smart, well-educated young people, therefore, making it a great place to start a vaccine business.
We received a US$50 million grant from the Crown Prince, and that is how we got rolling on the current project, which is to build a facility that will have high capacity and be able to supply a good fraction of the country's vaccine needs along with the needs of the other Organization for Islamic Cooperation countries, which consists of about a billion people.
Can you outline the partnership SaudiVax has with JNJ?
With JNJ, the plan is to move from bringing in their products that are already sold and purchased, and localize them to achieve lower costs and provide better service to the country. We are going to first bring in products to perform secondary packaging that meets local Saudi FDA requirements. From there, that will migrate towards doing primary filling and packaging, eventually possibly leading to making the active ingredient and filling and packaging, labeling, and distribution. It is a sensible stepwise approach that adds value and improves the supply chain.
How is the kingdom changing in terms of female inclusion in the workplace and how is SaudiVax leading the way in this regard?
From the beginning of SaudiVax it was apparent that the Saudi National Transformation Program was to transform the country socially as well as economically. In the last six years, we have seen enormous social change. As changes in headscarf and driving policy were implemented, people were immediately ready, and change happened the next day. It shows how hungry young Saudis are for change. We have a great group of people, made up of mostly very bright and well-educated women and they are doing a terrific job. Young Saud's need opportunities, but they are the opportunity. It is really unfortunate to let a person go through their 20's and 30's without the ability to use all the knowledge they have gathered. Tapping into this talent is like finding a goldmine. You usually hear about pent-up demand. This is pent-up capability. You have all these very capable young people willing and able to do something that is useful, and they will create the future.
To what extent is a globally competitive life sciences cluster being developed around King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)?
The advantage of being on the KAUST campus is enormous. We are surrounded by smart people with terrific capabilities and, if we do not know how to figure something out, somebody in the University will help us. They have good laboratories where they can do measurements with very expensive equipment that a small company could never handle on its own. It helps enormously to be in an intellectual center, as well as an industrial center. Furthermore, over the last several years, along with the Industrial Clusters department of the government, we helped develop a proposal to put a biotech cluster and a Bio-Park on the university campus.
We are combining the University Research and New Product Manufacturing experiences together in this new industrial Bio-Park at KAUST University to cover a wide range of biotech product types. This will lead to increased availability of existing vaccines and biopharmaceuticals, and also to the development of new biological products that specifically meet regional needs. We and others in the Bio-Park intend to produce vaccines, protein biopharmaceuticals, cell therapy, gene therapy, and mRNA-based vaccines and therapies. The goal is to cover the entire spectrum of biotech products, and while some of them will be brought in from elsewhere, we want to take new products from the point of discovery to the point of manufacturing and distribution. Already, we have a novel new therapeutic product for MERS that's about to enter clinical trials that meets a critical local need that has never been met by the global pharmaceutical industry.